Julianne Hough controversy sparks discussion about racially appropriate costumes

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 30 2013 5:50 p.m. MDT

Breck Gonzales and Leitha Harvey look for Halloween costumes at Mask Costumes in West Valley City Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2013.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A recent outing to a Halloween party for a Utah native left some people questioning which costumes are racially appropriate.

Actress and dancer Julianne Hough apologized on Twitter after dressing up as Crazy Eyes from the TV series "Orange Is the New Black" by darkening her face and wearing an orange jumpsuit.

Hough, who was raised in Salt Lake City, responded to the backlash by tweeting that she is a fan of the show, and "it certainly was never my intention to be disrespectful or demeaning to anyone in any way."

Theresa Martinez, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Utah, said there are instances across the nation where people are dressing up inappropriately for Halloween.

"It’s just another sign and symptom of the fact that we really have not, obviously, dealt with racism in our society," Martinez said.

A Utah man who said he darkened his face as part of his costume last Halloween was surprised to discover that pictures of him were posted on Facebook.

“I would absolutely not want to be the one that would be known as doing that,” said Dan, who asked to be identified only by his first name.

Dan said he joined a group dressing as insurance spokespeople late, and the last costume option was the Allstate spokesman. He said he didn't have any malicious intentions.

“Even the reactions, I didn’t even think about,” he said.

Dan said the only reaction he got was that his costume, thrown together in four hours, was “really crappy.”

“I think I just got lucky that nobody got offended,” he said.

Laura Bedore, who owns Mask Costumes, said she once had a customer dress as Jesus, and another dressed as the Affordable Care Act by wearing a lab coat and a Barack Obama mask.

“People love to do whatever is a little bit edgy at the time, but I haven’t seen anything this year that I would consider racially offensive,” Bedore said. “You can probably find some way to offend someone, somehow, at any given moment.”

The Associated Students of the University of Utah's Diversity Board has spearheaded a campaign on campus to spread awareness of costumes that may be racially or culturally inappropriate.

Tess Nell, board director, said the campaign began last year and generated a lot of discussion. This year, with posters placed around campus of costumes that could be offensive, Nell said she's hoping for a similar reaction.

“We don’t have the authority to say what is right and what is wrong," she said. "The real goal of this was just to bring some awareness about thinking about your costume and if it could potentially hurt someone to a certain degree.”

Some minority students commented on issue and said they would be less offended than others from their culture.

Giman Lee said as a Korean American he personally wouldn’t find Korean or Asian Halloween costumes offensive, but he said many Koreans would.

“Korean people care about how other people think about them,” he said. “We care how westerners think about Korea.”

Rudy Thomas, who is black, said this year he plans to dress up as Kanye West, but he doesn't expect anyone to be offended with his costume.

"African-Americans are entitled to be an African-American person," he said.

Thomas said if a white person were to dress up as an African-American, he wouldn't be offended. But he noted that he is an exception to how his friends and family members would feel.

"I never get offended by anything," he said. "I feel like a lot of times when people dress up, they show tribute or to honor someone. I think it's the purpose behind why you do it, and I think that's why people get offended."

But one student said the gray area for acceptable costumes really isn't that gray.

Muhammad Zakri said any costume that makes fun of any religion or race is offensive.

"Yeah, (Halloween) is just one night, but you still have to deal with other people around you," Zakri said. "It's about having a good time, but on the other hand, you don't want to offend certain people."

Martinez said the phenomenon is a generational one, and the best way to combat the situation is to teach children about social issues at a younger age. She said the costumes trending this year of Trayvon Martin or George Zimmerman are appalling.

“There’s such a deep level of ignorance in these young people,” Martinez said. “They really don’t realize they’re hurting people.”

Martinez described a Mexican-themed party in one of the departments at the university where green cards were handed out as party favors.

“These people are smart people. They have college degrees,” she said. “They’re not stupid or mean-spirited. If somebody had told them, ‘Do you realize how many people this would actually hurt?’ They’re not really thinking about these things.”

Martinez said she wouldn’t have a response for people who thinks offensive Halloween costumes are acceptable.

“That tells me their level of ignorance is a little too much to overcome with words,” she said. “I would probably want to spend my energy on people who recognize that something is wrong.”

Email: eeagar@deseretnews.com, Twitter: EmileeEagar

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