This isn’t so much a costume, admittedly, as a choice to avoid offensive, hurtful costumes. That means no blackface, and especially no blackface impersonating dead young black men. This means no pimps, no rednecks, no Long Duck Dong costumes, no geishas, no “squaws.” Basically, if you A) think you’re being funny and B) are wringing laughs from impersonating somebody of another culture or race, then C) you’re probably making a very bad choice.
“Melanin is not a costume,” a producer for Melissa Harris Perry tweeted over the weekend. “Blackface is wrong and racist. So don’t do it, folks.”
Because this is America and nothing is exempt from the culture wars, such a rule-of-thumb is bound to be greeted with hostility. Indeed, my friend (and occasional nemesis) Steven Hayward, the conservative writer, over the weekend lamented about Colorado University’s plea to students to avoid “stereotypical and offensive costumes.”
“While everyone has the freedom to be expressive,” the communiqué said, “we also encourage you to celebrate that you are a part of a vibrant, diverse CU community that strives toward respecting others.”
Seems sensible to me: An acknowledgement of every student’s right of self-expression, combined with a common-sense acknowledgment that some expression can be hurtful. “Political correctness,” Hayward calls it, but that downplays the virtues of political correctness. What we now call “PC” used to be known as good old-fashioned “politeness”—there was a time, I’m told, when adults didn’t go around hurting feelings just for the sake of hurting feelings, nor for the sake of their own cheap entertainment. They practiced a little self-restraint rather than needlessly hurting their neighbors.
The folks who didn’t? They were seen as simply rude.
That ethos is all but dead today, it seems: We’ve elevated the willingness to give offense—which occasionally is necessary—into one of the cardinal virtues, where even then it has become prone to abuse. We’ve apparently decided that since there is no right not to be offended, we should give the concept no weight at all. That’s unfortunate.
So how can you decide what’s an appropriate costume? Two rules of thumb: Again, stay away from impersonating any culture or race that’s not your own. Even if you have a brilliant idea, it’s almost certainly not going to be worth the trouble.
Second, figure out which way you’re punching. If you’re “punching down”—if the costume makes fun of somebody poorer, less powerful, more persecuted than you—you’re not being funny. You’re being a bully. “Punching up,” meanwhile, is an old, respected form of satire.
Granted, combining all these rules can be tricky in a nation where we have an African American president. Is impersonating him punching up or punching down? It probably depends, but you’ll want to be cautious. Just ask yourself: “Am I going to hurt somebody’s feelings with this costume? If so, is that offense worth it?” And if you still can’t decide, maybe leave the costume at home. Halloween is a kid’s holiday, anyway.