Halloween, a favorite time of the year for folks young and old, including myself, is only one week away. This means everyone will start to see more and more people dressing up to take on an alternate identity of their choice for this odd “holiday.” While this can be fun, scary, and humorous for many, it can also spark conversation and controversy about respect for other cultures and touchy subjects. The ethical aspect of this holiday relies on the individual as well as the companies involved in marketing costumes that could be considered unethical or offensive. A person’s costume choice is a reflection of their own ethics and overall respect for people of all cultures.
Contextual communication ethics can help broaden people’s views to recognize how important it is to consider the wide variety of culture, persons, and communication settings in order to find appropriate attire and props for this holiday. Halloween costume ideas like “Indians,” “terrorists,” or “hillbillies,” perpetuate often negative stereotypes about these groups of people. By wearing someone else’s culture as a costume, it is subjecting the members of that culture to stereotypes that may be offensive, and might be seen as belittling or mocking them. Ling Woo Liu, a member of the Asian American civil rights group, disagrees with the marketing of these types of costumes, making the point, “We’re a culture, not a costume,” in a Time (business.times.com) article by Brad Tuttle.
Retailers like Pottery Barn have agreed to stop selling costumes that they consider to be offensive, racist, or unethical, due to protest from activist groups like Asian Americans Advancing Justice. The problem is not just the articles of clothing themselves, but rather the fact that Pottery Barn is encouraging this type of unethical behavior by marketing these products for people to buy and wear. In response to the activists requests, Pottery Barn removed the costumes from in-store and online, in addition to offering an apology to those offended. Another example of a costume that was forced to get taken down by retailers would be the “Turban and Beard” costume that Walmart and Rite Aid were marketing to their customers, apparently resembling Osama Bin Laden, which were later taken down and apologized for as well.
Due to the fact that retailers are being pushed to reconsider the content on their websites and in-store, it makes them face the outdated and often offensive views that tie their brand to this type of negative marketing. The content that these companies put out into the world ultimately reflects that company’s own beliefs. This means that the amount of backlash that retailers like Pottery Barn, Walmart, and Rite Aid received now puts them in an unethical position to continue marketing these ideas, and therefore, they must take these items out of stores and apologize to make up for it. Apologizing publicly is a step in the right direction to compensate for the negative image that potential customers now associate them with. It reassures the customers that the company does, in fact, have its eye open to contextual communication ethics.
While conducting research about this ethical dilemma, the question that seemed to be raised often was, “If this costume is so unethical, why do they sell it at the store?” Unfortunately, the response to that is grim: racism is deeply embedded in many of the traditions widely celebrated in the United States. Columbus Day (Indigenous Peoples’ Day) just passed days ago, which is another example of this. It is of individual responsibility to educate yourself about these sensitivities and the ethical consequences of subjecting yourself to the marketing of such Halloween costumes. From the article on Communication Ethics Literacy, chapter 3, “Culture is a contextual host to the practice of ethics’ concern for the good and its enactment are integral to culture (pg. 51).” This means that one’s understanding of how culture and context intertwine, ultimately means how much respect you will have towards that culture and strive to uphold their views in a positive way instead of a negative way.
Through the education and attention drawn to this intersection of IMC, ethical communication choices, and the excitement of a fun holiday, new thought will help restore the ethical side of costume play to create a friendly, educated, and culturally-aware atmosphere. We must individually respect others and their cultures, because contextual communication ethics begins with “knowledge of the context aligned with the communicative necessity to be responsive to the needs of that context in a specific situation,” according to Ethics Literacy (53). So, as you prepare for costume ideas for next week, remember this article and skip the “sexy Indian costume” Google search this year. Have a safe and …