What Do People Get Out of Racist Costumes? A Cognitive Psychologist Explains

It's one thing to repeatedly warn against wearing racist costumes. But it's another thing entirely to understand why people wear them in the first place

By Jamilah King Oct 31, 2013

It’s one thing to repeatedly warn against wearing racist costumes. But it’s another thing entirely to understand why people wear them in the first place. We asked Kristina Olson, a cognitive psychologist who teaches at the University of Washington and whose work focuses on race, to shed some light on the thought process.

Every year around Halloween we see photos of people in racist costumes. As a cognitive psychologist, can you talk a little bit about what goes on in people’s minds when they wear these get-ups? 

I wish we could blame things like ignorance and people really not knowing the significance of things like blackface, but it’s hard for me to imagine in 2013 that people could really be ignorant to the history of what things like blackface have represented. Given that this comes up every single year, sometimes multiple times per year, it’s hard to say that it’s ignorance.

As someone who studies race and is really interested in how people think about race, often we’ve moved into a place where a lot of race bias we see is a lot more implicit. But these kinds of events come up and I think we forget that there is still this pretty blatant kind of race-biased behavior. The people that seem to do it don’t understand or are choosing to ignore the fact that this kind of racist humor not acceptable. One thing that I try to take from events like this is that part of the reason why they make the news is because not everyone thinks it’s okay so when it goes happen, there’s an outcry because so many of us realize how inappropriate it is.

One interesting thing that you sort of alluded to just now is that there seems to be this lack of empathy when people wear racist costumes. There was the story of the guys this year who dressed up like Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, for instance. The thing that people fall back on so often in this is, "But I’m not racist!" We have these ideas that racism has to be very explicit– and in these cases they definitely are — but people are able to distance themselves from their actions.

I guess it’s the definitional issue of how one defines racism. But given the history of these kinds of blackface costumes, it becomes racism based on the context in which it happens. Had Trayvon Martin been any random person who had been killed, it would still be in bad taste to dress up as that person for Halloween. But the added element that the person is in blackface takes it from poor taste to this added element of being downright racist. You know the person was doing it to be provocative. It wasn’t like they didn’t realize that this was going to happen. 

Can you talk a little bit about the impact on people of color who experience these costumes? Is there any research that you’ve done that talks about the cumulative stress of racism on individual people?

I don’t have any particular research on this topic, but there’s a lot of reason to think that the reason these things are impactful because it’s often a person from a dominant group, a powerful group in society that’s making fun of a group with less power. It’s precisely because there’s that power dynamic that the whole thing takes on even more significance. In this case, it’s using your power to make a statement about just how powerful you are over another group.