Skip to content Skip to main navigation Report an accessibility issue

The College Costume Conundrum

As Halloween – and Halloween parties – roll around, college students start getting into the Halloween spirit. I know I have at least 5 pumpkins in my apartment, Halloween dishtowels, a Halloween potholder, a Halloween sweatshirt, a Halloween t-shirt, and Halloween socks. The one luxury I haven’t allowed myself is a jack-o-lantern bucket full of candy.

Then, of course, comes the hunt for a costume. Lately, I’ve found a variety of articles about sexy costumes. I’ve seen articles in defense of sexy costumes and articles condemning them. I’ve seen a man in a sexy ladybug (manlybug?) costume, and I’ve stumbled upon a sexy corn costume. There are some articles that engage in slut shaming, and there are others that say the costumes are empowering. Overall, sexy costumes are getting a lot of attention.

But there’s one debate that ought to trump the sexy costume debacle: Are some costumes culturally insensitive? The University of Tennessee strongly values inclusivity and diversity, and we have great students who uphold those values (read about them here). However, certain costumes (Geisha costumes, Native American costumes, Arab costumes, a Mexican serape and hat, etc.), could be unintentionally contradicting those principles.

One article from the Healthy Heels blog explained the issue well:

“Halloween costumes that promote racial and ethnic stereotypes make fun of people who are already marginalized. For example, Native Americans make up 2% of the incoming class of UNC first years, and their numbers have declined 33% over the last 4 years at UNC, and yet Native American costumes are an ever-popular choice for Halloween in Chapel Hill. But sporting that “Sexy Pocahontas” costume trivializes the many rich and varied cultural traditions of Native Americans, not to mention the centuries of forced migration and genocide they have endured.”

Like Chapel Hill, the University of Tennessee has a varied student body. In Fall 2013, 22% of all UT students identified as non-white. 62 students identified as American Indian or Alaskan Native, 1,386 identified as Asian or Pacific Islander, 1,857 identified as Black, 806 identified as Hispanic, and 665 identified as multiracial. With such a diverse population, it is vital for 100% of UT students to empathize with how their actions might impact others.

The author, Natalie Rich, even addresses people with good intentions:

“It can be very frustrating to always feel in fear of offending someone, especially when it was not intended. And there aren’t hard and fast rules; what offends one person may seem harmless to another. But just because someone has good intentions does not automatically make the impact harmless.

So, should we move past the debate on sexy costumes? Is it time to challenge culturally insensitive costumes instead? Or, do men and women have the prerogative to wear whatever costume they please?

Post comments below or Email us with your comments!

Here is a link to a flowchart on how to avoid racist costumes.