update: how can I tell my coworkers their Halloween costumes are racist?

Remember the letter-writer wondering about how to talk to coworkers who were planning Halloween costumes that included blackface and other racist tropes? (You probably do, because it was the most commented-on post of last year.) Here’s her update.

I read through everyone’s advice and decided to speak to the office manager about my concerns and suggest that perhaps she make a small announcement regarding costumes, since it seemed that many people were just unaware of what is considered inappropriate. She actually shared with me that they were already considering asking people not to come to work in costume because of a few issues with very revealing costumes the previous year. She was glad that I felt comfortable enough to share my concerns with her and said she would look into it.

The firm actually ended up banning costumes in the office, instead of making a long list of announcements regarding what is and what isn’t allowed. This also extended to a cancellation of the office Halloween party. They did encourage people to be festive if they wanted to (themed earrings, make-up, clothes, etc.) So a few people did cat makeup or doll makeup, wore festive ties/pumpkin sweaters, etc. but were dressed in business or business casual attire.

A few of us had a happy hour after work in lieu of the party, and all was well! I was really relieved that no one was really upset about the change and that I wasn’t the only one with costume concerns.

I want to thank all of your readers for their input! It was certainly an interesting discussion and I was very grateful for the guidance.

{ 90 comments… read them below }

  1. Laura*

    Great update! It’s unfortunate that the Hallowe’en party had to be cancelled, but heck, after hours get togethers are usually better than office parties anyway.

    I think festiveness in lieu of costumes is a good compromise and much more work appropriate.

  2. Katie the Fed*

    Ah that’s great! I’m glad that:

    1) other people spoke up too and
    2) your manager seems sensible

    That was one of the craziest threads ever here. I still shudder thinking people thought it was ok to do.

  3. Jamie*

    How is cat/doll makeup not a costume?

    Did anyone do this? I’d find it so bizarre to try to talk to a coworker about work if they have painted whiskers on their face.

    But then I don’t get the appeal of dressing up at work, because it just seems so weird and silly to me. What if someone comes up and you have to handle a serious situation like an immediate firing, injury, or crisis. Can you do that and maintain dignity if you’re dressed as Raggedy Ann?

    One of those things other people do which I’ll never understand, I guess. Like watching sports if you aren’t the parent of one of the players or eating spicy food on purpose.

    1. Ann Furthermore*

      The finance department at my company dresses up every year, and they choose a theme. Last year it was the 80’s. I had to have a very long talk with the director of that group, about some critical issues, all while he was dressed up like Vince Neill from Motley Crew.

        1. Ann Furthermore*

          It really was pretty funny. It was an impromptu discussion that started when we bumped into each other in the hallway, and I yanked his chain a little bit and asked him we should continue our discussion when I was able to take him seriously. We laughed. He’s got a pretty good sense of humor. He was dressed up as Vince Neill — how could he not??

      1. the gold digger*

        My office picked a theme and we dressed up. One year, we were superheroes and supervillains. I went as Medusa with rubber snakes in my hair.

        But this was when I worked in Austin. I don’t think it would fly here.

        1. Windchime*

          One year at OldJob, the pharmacy department dressed up as SnowWhite and the Seven Dwarves. Snow White was a man, and I still sometimes see his hairy legs and man shoes peeking out from under the satin dress in my nightmares.

          1. Stephanie*

            One year, someone dressed up at Pinhead from Hellraiser. And he went full out and included the cape, pins, and pancake makeup. It was terrifying.

          1. Karyn*

            Thanks! PS, I’m the one on the left, playing Joan Jett. And yes, that is my real hair. I loved my fashion mullet. ;)

        1. Jamie*

          That is awesome! Sometimes I really wish I could post a pic but I don’t store online.

          I have pics of my kids in awesome KISS makeup. It’s my hidden talent. We went to we call “half a cover band” around here (No Ace, no Peter, not really KISS) and did my youngest makeup and he was hanging out the car window and doing the tongue thing all the way to the arena. Other drivers were all honking in appreciation the whole way.

          At the time 7-11 was doing the KISS slurped cups and we had several Gene and Paul but couldn’t find the fake-Ace and fake-Peters by us (they always stock 2/3 Gene and Paul) and I was sad so I tried the one by work and came back empty handed because it’s in the city and no parking lots and I can’t parallel park.

          The owner of my company went out to run an errand that afternoon and came back with the cups I needed for my collection. Along with more mocking of my suburban driving skills, but that was a cool day.

          1. Karyn*

            Awwww, the owner of that company gets a gold star. And somehow, Jamie, it does not surprise me one bit that you have pics of your kids in KISS makeup. ;) Please take that as a compliment!

          2. AMG*

            Jamie, I really hope you have the opportunity to see the zombie apocolypse store in Las Vegas. It has the best ever Hello Kitty zombie stuff. I think I still have pictures on my phone somewhere…In fact, my kids may get those t-shirts for Halloween this fall.

    2. esra*

      But doro wat is so delicious.

      Solution to maintaining dignity in costume = everyone dresses up as Batman?

            1. Mallory*

              Oops — I was testing some HTML to see if I could write the “wear pink” in strikeout script.

              Didn’t work.

      1. Elsajeni*

        Many years ago, when I worked as a tutor, I had a shift on Halloween, and one of my biggest troublemakers came in dressed as Batman.

        And behaved perfectly.

        It was the only time I had ever seen that kid be quiet and productive for more than a minute at a time. It was miraculous. I can only assume he felt really, really strongly about not dishonoring the mantle of the Dark Knight. (I did not send a note home to his parents saying “Please send the Batman costume every week,” but I thought about it.)

        1. Sharm*

          I think Ben was really depressed about Leslie when he was wearing his Batman costume, but it all worked out in the end, didn’t it?


      2. Stephanie*

        +1 on doro wat

        One thing I do miss about DC is living half a block away from an entire stretch of Ethiopian restaurants. Here, I have to drive 40 minutes for the closest.

    3. Anonsie*

      Last year I dressed up because I had no meetings scheduled and, if I took off my hat and backpack, I was wearing a normal outfit (aside from the slightly weird socks). I figured if something important came up, I’d just take the accessories off.

    4. Sourire*

      “How is cat/doll makeup not a costume?”

      Makeup** to me is different than a full-on costume, particularly in this case because it was mentioned that revealing clothing was an issue previously. It’s also pretty easy to remove if need be as opposed to requiring an outfit change if one were in a full costume.

      **That is not including something like blackface as mentioned in the original thread. I mean whiskers for a cat, extra blush/lashes for a doll, etc.

    5. Jennifer*

      Well, it cheers up your customers coming in that day and is festive. But you’re right, the high muckety-mucks pretty much don’t dress up for that reason. Dressing up is for the peons.

    6. Windchime*

      I laughed out loud picturing Jamie trying to fire someone while dressed up as Raggedy Ann!

    7. mess*

      I agree with you – call me unfun but I sort of hate it when people wear Halloween costumes at work. Once a new coworker dressed up as a cute little deer in a homemade costume–wearing a brown sweatsuit, antlers and facepaint. He was fresh out of school, very young and green. It was one of my first impressions of him, and I had a hard time taking him seriously after that. I just always thought ‘here comes the little baby deer’ whenever I interacted with him. I love spicy food and eat it on purpose all the time though!

  4. Juni*

    Great resolution.

    My office designates any day that would remotely inspire someone to dress up as “silly hat day,” and it’s part of the culture here. Halloween, St. Patrick’s Day, Valentine’s Day, etc., are days when we do need to wear business or business casual attire, but can top it off with a silly hat.

    1. Annie*

      Brilliant! That’s a really fun way of doing it, and it removes a lot of possibilities for inappropriateness.

      I’m glad OP’s situation was resolved so well. Hooray for sensible management!

    2. Mints*

      Smart! You can literally be like “I’m taking off my accountant hat now, and will wear my party hat”

  5. Sharm*

    I’m so happy this worked out well. I was expecting there to be more outcry, actually. Good for you for bringing it up, and glad that your manager and company were in alignment.

  6. Celeste*

    Great update! Sounds like the best of both worlds–a little holiday levity without going off the deep end.

  7. Anonymous*

    Yay! I love the updates that end like this. Sounds like everyone involved was happy with it, too.

  8. Us, Too*

    I work in Austin and about 75% of our staff dress up like hipsters every day, but I’m pretty sure that’s not a costume. :)

  9. Rev. (Church Pastor)*

    Shout out to OP. Excellent handling of what we in Old School called a “funky situation.”

    Really, REALLY funky.

    I KNOW I would have NOT handled it like that. Not a fan of the concept of channeling, but I think I would have turned into a combo of Malcolm X and Huey Newton, beret, horn-rimmed glasses, and all. The MLK side of me would have to had to hold their coats and be quiet while Malcolm/Huey did their thing.

    *takes deep breath*

    This deeply affected me, and if you don’t mind, AAM, I’ll say why.

    Back in the late 60’s-early 70’s, we lived in Lawton, OK (Army brat). We attended an integrated school, where Black, White, Fillipino, Hawaiian, American Indian, etc. kids all were in the same classroom, no problem.

    Dad got discharged (’72), we moved back to Louisiana, enrolled in local school, which, oddly enough, had not yet complied with the new Fed laws concerning integration. The school in our town for Black kids had grades 1-12, all in one school, which meant class sizes of 30-40+ students, books that had spent 6-7 years in the White schools before being sent to us as “new books”, etc, etc.

    Needless to say, my parents were not happy, to say the least.

    When they attempted to enroll us in the other school, they were told we could not attend. To make a long story short, my Dad, an Army sergeant with 20 years, Vietnam/Korea under his belt, went to the local school board office, and politely informed them of their error. (“Politely”….Ha!)

    Anyway, off I go to the White school, and was introduced to Racism 101. I was one of 2 Black kids attending, and the other one was in Special Needs (which went by another name, back then, but that’s a whole ‘nother thing). Some of the kids thought that yelling “N&^%%$% on the sidewalk!” and jumping off was hilariously funny. Some of the parents insisted that their kids not be seated next to me, so I was placed in the back of the classroom.

    No kidding.

    My mother and grandmother had told me that some of the children would behave like that, because “some people are just plain ignorant, baby, but remember, be yourself.”

    That was nearly 50 years ago, and, while I know I have forgiven, I have never, EVER forgotten. That’s why I respect OP, her handling of the situation is stellar.

    Thanks AAM, that was rather cathartic.

    1. hildi*

      Wow. Thanks for sharing that story. Mind boggling how recently those things still happened…

    2. fposte*

      Are you familiar with the poet Marilyn Nelson? She had a similar experience a little earlier than you, in the 1950s–military brat, often the only black kid in the neighborhood. She’s got a great memoir in verse about it (written for young adults) called How I Discovered Poetry.

    3. the gold digger*

      Hello fellow military brat!

      My friend Michael, who is African American, grew up on Army bases. His dad was a chaplain and an LTC. Michael tells me that it wasn’t until his dad retired when Michael was 14 and they moved to Memphis that he experienced racism.

      In the military, it’s just not like that. (Your dad’s rank matters, but not the color of your skin.)

      I’m sorry that happened to you and to other people. It is not a proud part of our country’s history (or present).

    4. Stephanie*

      Yeah, I heard some fairly horrible stuff at my elementary school in a Philly suburb, including a classmate telling me she thought black people descended from monkeys. And this was in the early 90s!

    5. KrisL*

      That’s a horrible thing to have to go through. Your grandma was right; some people are just ignorant.

    6. Anne 3*

      Thanks for sharing, Rev.

      I am happy with the follow-up to this post and the actions taken by the OP and the company – this could easily have turned very ugly.

    7. JenTheNiceHRGirl*

      Wow, that’s really sad….no kid should have to go through that. I am happy to say that my son is the only kid of his race in his class and he hasn’t been subjected to anything negative. At first a lot of the kids were curious about him, but none of them were mean. He has lots of friends and there hasn’t been any race-related issues. It is nice to see that times have changed and that parents are teaching their kids about diversity and how it is a positive thing.

    8. Rev. (Church Pastor)*

      Happy ending: My teacher, a genial, white-haired lady (in the truest Southern sense of the word), treated me like her own pet project. I sat in the back of the class for about a week, before she moved me next to her desk, I think to prove a point.

      One day, she sent me to the office one day with a note, and told me to give it to the secretary and wait. After about 10 minutes, the secretary told me to go back to class. When I walked in, every eye shifted towards me, which normally wouldn’t be unusual, but that day, seemed a bit odd.

      Years later, I found out that she gave the entire class a good tongue lashing. She said, “I’m ashamed of y’all. That little colored boy comes in heah evah day with his homework done, an’ ansah evah question I put to ‘him. Most of y’all caint say the same thing, can you? I betteah not EVAH hear none’a y’all call him names agin’ y’heah?”

      They heard. Miz T didn’t play. To this day, she remains my favorite teacher.

  10. BCW*

    Oh, I remember this one. Actually went back and read some of it. Man, it got heated. I had what I thought was a valid question, but I think it was overlooked due to the sheer number of responses. Essentially it was: On a holiday like Cinco de Mayo, do people really think its racist if I go to a bar or party and they have sombreros (which I wear) and I drink corona’s and Margarita’s all day. What about when I wear all green (with a red wig) for St. Pat’s day? Does it matter that I’m a black man doing either of these? I’m really not even trying to argue, just curious at people’s thoughts.

    1. AMG*

      And I feel like the St Patrick’s Day thing is celebrating versus what these people were doing–making fun of others.

    2. Esra*

      Kamau Bell was on Bill Maher’s show recently, and Maher (I’m not a fan) did that thing he did where he tried to ‘gotcha’ the panel by reading two similar quotes: one from Paul Ryan in a public statement and the other from Michelle Obama from a different setting. Bell defended Obama saying: “she was talking to black people — we talk to each other differently than we talk in front of you.”

      Which I agree with. I think it’s disingenuous to equate those two quotes and the people and intent behind them. Please Listen to Me did a recent comic, “Save Me”, that has the same kind of vibe (and made me laugh).

      Anyway, I’d have way *way* less problem with you donning an orange wig for St. Patrick’s than I would a white man donning black face ever.

    3. Mints*

      I think that it’s problematic and insensitive, but super common. And if I knew you in real life, I might or might not say anything.
      But since you’re asking, it’s problematic because it’s not really celebrating a specific event/person, it’s just celebrating a stereotypical idea of what “Mexican” or “Irish” is. If you were hanging out with a Mexican friend who invited you to wear, for example, skull makeup on day of the dead, it’s different because someone from the culture is inviting you participate in a specific way, not a cartoon character imitation.
      Another example for you to think about: the schools that had fried chicken, corn bread, and greens “in honor of MLK day.”
      And I agree with Esra that it’s worse when white people do it because they’re more likely to be oblivious or insensitive to racism

      1. Office Mercenary*

        “If you were hanging out with a Mexican friend who invited you to wear, for example, skull makeup on day of the dead, it’s different because someone from the culture is inviting you participate in a specific way, not a cartoon character imitation.”

        +1. Most Mexicans outside of Puebla do not celebrate Cinco de Mayo. Seeing a fairly minor battle re-appropriated as an excuse for Americans to get drunk on Corona and act out cartoonish stereotypes is really irritating to me. If my friends were to ask me for help building an ofrenda or baking pan de muerto I’d be thrilled, but I avoid Cinco de Mayo parties at all costs. I wouldn’t call the concept itself 100% racist, but in my experience, it doesn’t stop with wearing sombreros and drinking shitty beer; eventually people put on fake accents and look for excuses to say the most racist things possible. And the food is almost always terrible.

        1. Mephyle*

          Not sure of the connection being made here between Cinco de May (May) and Day of the Dead (November). No link between those two here in Mexico. Or is it that people somehow connect these in the U.S.?

          1. Aunt Vixen*

            What I got was, if you want to actually commemorate an actual Mexican holiday, 5 May isn’t likely to be it.

            Analogy: I am not the only person of Jewish background who gets a little tired of how much play Hanukkah gets just because it usually falls in a time frame that would otherwise be entirely occupied by Christmas. It is a relatively minor holiday. It’s inflated in large part so the schools can fuss about Christmas without excluding the Jewish kids, but (a) there are more kids in schools than just those who celebrate Christmas on one hand and Jews on the other, and (b) as these threads have demonstrated, the best way to be inclusive is not to emphasize an item of your choice from the subculture you’re trying to include.

            1. Office Mercenary*

              “What I got was, if you want to actually commemorate an actual Mexican holiday, 5 May isn’t likely to be it.”

              That’s what I meant. I don’t celebrate Cinco de Mayo at all but Americans seem to think it’s the quintessential experience of Mexican-ness, which is apparently crappy beer, crappy food, moustaches, and joking about being lazy and having tons of kids. Sure, it’s totally possible that people could leave out the racist jokes and just enjoy an excuse to eat tacos, because tacos are yummy, yay tacos! I’m not saying that all Cinco de Mayo celebrations in the United States are inherently racist, but I’ve seen a lot of them that are.

      2. Annie0*

        Yes Mints, you captured my thoughts exactly! I’ve never seen a Mexican person drinking a margarita and wearing a sombrero on May 5, and there’s a reason for that. I come from an Irish-American family with a lot of alcoholism struggles, and the fact that the “celebration” of Irish culture in America is mostly centered around green beer and passing out in the street never really felt like a flattering/fun celebration to me.

    4. Del*

      Yeah, it’s racist.

      As for your second question, I would say it matters less that you’re black specifically, and more that you’re not Mexican or Irish (respectively to the different situations).

      There are absolutely ways for people who aren’t of the original culture to observe those holidays respectfully if they feel so inclined, but they generally don’t involve the extent of the observation being bits of costume and loads of alcohol.

    5. JenTheNiceHRGirl*

      I think wearing a sombrero on Cinco de Mayo is fine. That is just you celebrating a holiday and being festive. There is a difference between celebrating another culture, and making fun of it in an offensive manner.

    6. BCW*

      Its nice to hear everyone’s opinions, and it definitely makes me think. I will say my friends who are 100% Irish, as in their parents are literally from Ireland, are right there with me on St. Pats day celebrating and love my Irish wig. Cinco de Mayo, not sure. I assure you my friends and I aren’t sitting around making racist jokes, so I guess its more of a personal opinion. I don’t have a ton of Mexican friends (I do have latino friends, but they aren’t actually Mexican), so I don’t know really what their thoughts are.

  11. Thebe*

    Our office used to take Halloween very seriously, with some pretty elaborate costumes. Our top manager came in one year dressed in a big bumble bee costume. He totally forgot he was interviewing a candidate for an important position that day! We ended up hiring that person and she spoke fondly for years of her interview with a bumble bee.

    1. Turanga Leela*

      I love this! I can’t imagine the shock of walking into an interview and realizing that the hiring manager is a bee.

    2. Jean*

      @Thebe: “We ended up hiring that person and she spoke fondly for years of her interview with a bumble bee.”

      LOL! This gives the usually grim image of “worker bees” a more friendly interpretation. It’s also a really nice ending for your story.

  12. The Maple Teacup*

    I’m sad the workplace decided to ban costumes across the board. Halloween is my favorite event and I love dressing up in a costume with a passion. I suppose it was unavoidable though when you have beyond the edge of logic and good taste coworkers. Glad other people thought the blackface costumes were ghastly.

  13. Forrest*

    Anyone else a little bothered that this was canned due to the revealing costumes and not the insensitive (racist) ones?

    1. ArtsNerd*

      Me too, but I think it’s a less … heated(?)… reason to nix them and implement the new policy than racial/cultural sensitivity, so the pragmatist in me is okay with it.

    2. Loose Seal*

      Maybe by “revealing,” they meant “revealing levels of racism we did not think we had in the office.”

    3. Lamb*

      That TPTB cited revealing costumes from the year before rather than racist costumes that people were planning for the upcoming Halloween seems solid in terms of justifying their decision. That way people couldn’t argue that they were “joking” about planning to wear blackface or propose that they should just change the costume they were planning.
      ArtsNerd also makes a good point that citing racist costumes is more likely to lead to the (clearly insensitive on these issues) coworkers complaining about how “everything needs to be so PC these days :’-(” whereas an issue of inappropriately revealing costumes does not set off the same kind of whining.

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