How To Dress As A Character Of Color This Halloween (Without Being Problematic)

Photo: Gregory Pace/REX/Shutterstock.
Hollywood is experiencing a surge in amazing shows and movies that tell stories of people of color. Serendipitously, Halloween is also right around the corner. The advent of so much great content for and by people of color means the costume option pool has exponentially grown. I’m excited to see the characters of color from our favorite series and films be represented on the one night when people aspire to recreate themselves. But there is a fine line between pretending and appropriating (or worse, being downright racist). We are living in tense times when it comes to issues of race and identity, so the dialogue is worth it. Here’s how to dress up as pretty much whoever you want this Halloween without being problematic.
The Non-Negotiables
Under no circumstances — no matter what racial group you identify with — should you paint your face black, brown, yellow, or red to signify any ethnic group as part of your Halloween costume. Blackface has a nasty history that includes minstrelsy, stereotypes, and the exploitation of Black people on screen that is still too fresh. The same is true for yellowface in the Asian community and redface for Native Americans. Going as someone from Avatar that requires blue paint? Beetlejuice? Or even Teddy Perkins from Atlanta? Go facepaint crazy.
Speaking of Native Americans…
It’s time to hang up the tribal costumes — “sexy,” “slutty,” zombified, and all other variations. Not only is it a played-out costume idea, but donning this kind of outfit trivializes the sacred practices of an entire group of people. We should be respecting the sanctity of other people’s cultural and spiritual practices, even in the days surrounding October 31. Other no-nos include wearing afro/dreadlock/cornrow wigs. If you can’t pull off the look with the skin and hair that you currently have, just take your L and pick something else.
People of Color Are Not Monolithic
People/characters of color are more than their skin color and hair. They foster their own sense of style and individuality, especially if they’ve reached celebrity status. For example, these three white guys nailed their Migos costumes without corny wigs or facepaint. It worked because they captured Migos’ gaudy fashion aesthetic and accessorized with big chains, face tattoos, and sunglasses. The best Halloween costumes are the ones where you commit yourself to the character completely, not just the visual details. The trick is to make it uniquely yours. Put your own spin on it. Act. Perform. Draw people in. If you really think that the only way to pull off a Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba) costume from Orange is the New Black is to paint your face brown, you lack the ingenuity required to even participate in Halloween, anyway.
Exceptions to the Rules (& Slippery Slopes)
The image in this story is Heidi Klum dressed as werewolf Michael Jackson from his "Thriller" music video at her annual Halloween party in 2017. Technically, she painted her face and used prosthetics to look like a Black man. But given that M.J. was also in a werewolf costume in the iconic music video, it was okay. Similarly, dressing as the Black Panther requires a full spandex suit, but a black mask/head covering as well. It’s fine. He’s a universally accepted superhero, and I hope to see a bunch of people crouched in low-hanging tree branches after too much tequila. However, let’s keep slippery slopes in mind. If you and your non-Black squad are hoping to don some tribal face paint to transform into the Dora Milaje or members of the Jabari tribe, don’t. These markings were inspired by actual African tribes, and we are not appropriating cultures in 2018. If you’re unsure, just don’t do it.
Check Yourself
Most importantly, you should question yourself and your own privilege when considering your Halloween costume. When Kim Kardashian West dressed up as Aaliyah in 2017, it stirred up some controversy. She perfectly recreated the late singer’s eye makeup and outfit from the “Try Again” video. However, Kim and her famous sisters have been accused of cultural appropriation and racial insensitivity throughout their careers, so dressing as a Black woman for Halloween prompted different reactions from fans. Before you choose your costume, ask yourself why you identify with this particular character or icon? What reaction do you hope to inspire from onlookers? Laughs? Admiration? Awe? What is your relationship to the culture that is being referenced in your costume? Checking our own privilege is never a bad idea.
Now that we’re on the same page, check out some of our dope Black pop culture costume guides. Should you choose to rock any of them, make sure you do it right.

More from Pop Culture

R29 Original Series