How to talk to your friend about their problematic Halloween costume

A few years ago, most privileged, white-passing people—myself included—were blissfully unaware of the fact that their “sexy” geisha costume was offensive.

But then, thanks to the internet, some outspoken co-workers and friends who took time to educate us, and upsetting news stories, many of us learned that Halloween costumes do not mean an opportunity to “try on” someone’s race, gender, sexual orientation, or culture, make a mockery of it, and then “take it off” to return to one’s own privilege. Unfortunately, this “wokeness” didn’t reach everyone at the same time (or to the same extent). I was working at a women’s magazine when the “We’re a Culture, Not a Costume” campaign began gaining momentum, so I immediately learned what costumes to avoid and went on my merry way.

But after moving back to D.C. years later, I made a new friend who told me she was thinking of dressing up as a “sexy Native American” for Halloween. I was dumbfounded. How could someone be so clueless? How could she be so unaware of the real life impact of cultural appropriation, when the information is all around us? I had to remember that not everyone works in media and gets paid to check Twitter—so that could explain her ignorance to what is, to me, a thoroughly discussed issue. But to be honest, I wasn’t sure how to talk to such a new acquaintance about her costume choice. Instead, I ignored her invitations to celebrate Halloween and knew that I would not be going to any spooky festivities with her.

I took the easy way out. I missed an opportunity to educate someone and help them become more culturally sensitive. I don’t want to do that again, and maybe you don’t either, so I asked some experts for help. If someone you expect to do better messes up, here’s how to talk to them about their problematic Halloween costume choice.

Start with a question.

Instead of assuming that your friend is purposely being an asshole, assume that they’re blissfully unaware and give them a chance to learn. “Start the conversation by asking if they’ve considered that their costumes may be perceived as offensive to some people,” recommends Dr. Joy Harden Bradford, psychologist and founder of Therapy For Black Girls. “[Then, ask them to] examine the consequences should they proceed with wearing it and the message it sends about who they are and what kind of person they might be.”

Instead of sending a passive-aggressive text message suggesting that they’re racist, simply ask a question such as:

How do you think that [insert marginalized group here] would feel about your costume?
What made you choose to dress as [insert problematic costume choice] this year?

You can even make make suggestions to them: “Instead of using your Forever 21 fringe skirt to dress up as a Native American, why not dress up as a hippie?”

If you don’t belong to the culture that is being offended, you don’t have to make the critique personal.

As Dr. Joy mentioned, a good strategy to achieve quick resolutions is to tell your friend what other people are going to think of their offensive actions, rather than making your critique personal. You might say something like:

Are you worried that people are going to get angry at you for wearing that costume?
Have you seen what people have been tweeting about girls who dress up like [insert problematic costume here]?

“Something I see a lot is people who practically brag about how woke they are—but are terrible people to interact with and often leave others feeling like shit after interacting with them,” says Milly Tamarez, comedian and creator of WhiteForgiveness.Tumblr.Com.

And Milly’s right. Nobody wants to feel like they’re  in trouble with the “woke” police when they could just be taught what’s right. Of course, there are levels to this: If you’re a Muslim person and your friend is planning on wearing an extremely problematic “terrorist” costume, you obviously have every right to directly and sternly explain how these costumes contribute to harmful stereotypes about you and your family. But if you are a cisgender person, and your cis guy friend plans on dressing up as Caitlyn Jenner? You can approach him as a concerned friend who wants him to do better.

Try to have a one-on-one conversation.

If you try to talk to your friend with another equally disappointed person by your side, then your friend might feel ganged up on and become defensive; this makes them less likely to listen and learn. On the other hand, if you try to, say, individually talk to a group of sorority sisters dressed up as “sexy immigrants,” then you might be ignored and called a killjoy. I saw this happen firsthand in college. A new freshman in our sorority posted in our Facebook group, criticizing an upcoming Thanksgiving-themed social; the term “nava-hoes” had even been used on the flyer.

My sorority sisters treated this lesson like an “attack” because it had been done behind a computer, instead of face to face. And, of course, there were lots of the “Wow, why can’t we just have fun?” reactions. Now that I know Milly and Dr. Joy’s advice, I look back and wonder how this could have been accomplished another way. The freshman sister could have approached certain girls with leadership roles individually, and brought up the fact that dressing as Native Americans would make us look like ignorant, privileged, stereotypical sorority girl assholes. Maybe, that way, more girls would have listened. Maybe. at the very least, if they still didn’t learn to empathize, their fears of judgment would have prevented the offensive behavior.

When all else fails, fill in the blank.

Still not sure how to approach your party friend about her “sexy chola” get-up? Try using one of Milly or Dr. Joy’s mad-libs sentences:

Milly:Hey I am not sure if you know this but ______ is kind of offensive to _____ kind of people. Have you thought about doing _____ instead?”

Dr. Joy:Hi friend! Have you considered that your costume would be offensive to _____ because ____? Have you ever heard about the “My Culture is Not a Costume” campaign? Let me show you what I mean.”

As for the situation that I’d experienced with a new friend? Should it happen again, Dr. Joy recommends casually steering my friend towards the “My Culture is Not a Costume” campaign. Or, since I’m not very close with her, simply ending the friendship if I find the behavior particularly offensive.

Milly recommends trying to have a conversation first, then gauging her reaction to decide if I even want to stay connected with this new acquaintance.

“If this friend isn’t really in a place to hear you, keep that in mind and maybe she can shift from being a close friend to someone who you just engage with at social events,” says Milly. “But oh my fucking god—do not be pictured with her.”

Remember, it is so easy for you and your friends to have fun without disrespecting an entire culture. Happy Halloween!