Jason Sperber has some thoughts worth considering about when Halloween costumes are offensive and worth avoiding. Jason and I weren't close friends ourselves, but we had several friends in common during college, and we often sat at the same table in the dining hall. I don't think either one of us expected to have much if any contact with each other after we graduated, but I recently discovered that he's blogging in several locations, mostly in the context of race, and I found enough of it intriguing to add his blogs to my RSS reader. I've put up links some of the places he blogs in the sidebar, but I've been waiting for a post by him that I wanted to say something about so I could mention him in a post.
I think a lot of people who claim certain kinds of costumes to be offensive do an absolutely awful job of explaining why, and those who don't understand the reasons usually just write them off as being too over-sensitive. Sometimes maybe people can be over-sensitive and get offended at something they shouldn't. Other times maybe there is cause for offense, but it's not a grave enough concern to justify the kind of outrage you sometimes see, and besides there might be more productive ways to address such issues than complaining about one's rights being violated simply because one has been offended. Still, there are good reasons to avoid certain kinds of Halloween costumes, and Jason provides some good explanations (taken from tolerance.org) for why it might be bad to use a variety of different kinds of costumes. The reasons vary in kind and in degree of importance. I want to try to make the moral reasoning more explicit, since some of them go a little too quickly for my philosophically-trained ethical thought processes.
1. Some costumes make fun of real people. That's not good, and wearing a costume to make fun of real people (or putting a costume on your child to make fun of real people) is immoral.
2. Is a costume scary because it reflects real violence? If it helps promote violence, it's bad, even if that's not your intent. If it's insensitive to harm caused to actual people, that's similarly bad, even if that's not your intent. If it conveys that all members of a certain group are violent, that promotes a stereotype. If it's a false stereotype, that's bad. Even if it's a stereotype that relies on a general truth about many in a group, it might still be bad if it treats all in that group that way or if it promotes the expectation of people in that group being that way. It also might be capitalizing on the misfortune of a general trend in a group that we might better wish were not true, using that misfortune for fun.
3. Some costumes are meant to be historical representations by rely on false views of what historical practices really went on. There are a couple examples about Native American practices that costumes often misrepresent. This seems on the surface to be a consistency issue. If you want it to be a historical representation, do it right. Of course no costume can really get something perfect, so I don't think this is a strong reason to avoid these costumes, but I think there's a deeper consideration beneath the surface. It seems to do a culture an injustice if you use what might easily be viewed as a caricature of that culture for mere fun. Even if you do not intend to make fun, and even if you are not stereotyping in a harmful way, relying on widespread false impressions of a historical group serves to perpetuate those, and this seems to me to be a problem even if you aren't intending to be historically accurate.
4. If the costume displays something related to beauty or attractiveness, does it reflect a harmful standard of beauty the advertizing and entertainment industries are promoting as beauty? If so, then it serves to perpetuate a standard that causes all sorts of damage, especially to girls and women. It's not good if the costume says something about who counts as beautiful and thus perpetuates an artificial and harmful standard of beauty.
With some of these considerations, if you take the concerns too far, it will be hard to dress up as anything, but I think it's at least worth taking these factors into account when considering costumes. These are morally relevant factors, even if they aren't all absolute prohibitions, and I think it will take some work to think carefully about them while considering costumes. Those who engage in that practice (we don't, or at least we haven't so far, not that we have any serious objections to it) would do well to think through these considerations with some care.