- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 30, 2014

Ray and Janay Rice. Sexy Ebola nurses. Swarthy Islamic State terrorists. Toothless hillbillies, naughty nuns and drunken Mexicans.

An array of offensive costumes is a Halloween staple, and the debate over good fun, tradition and political correctness shows no signs of fading this year.

Costumes that push the envelope or are outright inappropriate have sprung up online. Social media images show Halloween revelers donning blackface, dressing as NFL running back Ray Rice and his battered wife, Ebola sufferers, homeless people, drug addicts and religious adherents.

Millions of people who hand out goodies to trick-or-treaters this year may find at their doorsteps a mini-drama between freedom of expression and political correctness.

Another Halloween staple is an expanding list of costumes that are deemed offensive, and nervous college administrators are warning students against dressing as rednecks, rappers and dumb blondes.

The editorial board of The Daily Cougar, the student newspaper for the University of Houston, wrote this week: “We shouldn’t need to explain why each of these costumes is offensive. Any costume that references past abuse against a racial group or makes light of mental health issues is in bad taste, and should not even be on the market.”

One commenter on the paper’s website replied: “More political correctness bs from the cultural marxists at the Daily Cougar.”

Beyond college campuses, Catholic League President Bill Donohue on Thursday chided retail giant Wal-Mart for selling “evil nun” costumes after bowing to pressure to remove “fat girl” costumes because of customer complaints.

If Wal-Mart wants to continue stocking “a grotesque costume that demeans Jesus’ mother,” Mr. Donohue said, perhaps Catholics may want to consider shopping elsewhere this holiday season.

Total Fright, one of the largest Halloween stores in the Washington area, is not stocking certain costumes, but that is not stopping some revelers.

“We don’t carry those costumes, but it’s not going to keep people from making those costumes,” store owner Lorenzo Caltagirone said.

The store is sold out of hazmat costumes from last year’s “Breaking Bad” fad, but Mr. Caltagirone said customers this year are pairing the suits with bloodshot contact lenses to look like carriers of the deadly Ebola disease.

Mr. Caltagirone said some of the costumes at Total Fright could be seen as insensitive, especially for the Catholic faithful. The store’s website sells costumes called “Sinfully Hot Nun,” “Mother Superior Nun” and “Naughty Nun.” Others feature women wearing revealing habits and crosses.

“My philosophy is that you have to know your audience. Are they going to be offended by the costume you’re going to be wearing?” Mr. Caltagirone said. “Be sensitive to the people around you.”

Walmart.com sells a “Phat Pimp” costume for boys. Party City carries a “Drunken Mexican” costume featuring bottles of tequila and a sombrero. Halloween Express sells a costume of Jesus battered and bleeding after being beaten and crucified. The list goes on.

Some of the most popular and problematic Halloween costumes stereotype religious, ethnic or cultural groups.

American Indian, Hawaiian and Middle Eastern costumes will be worn for parties, school celebrations and trick-or-treating.

“Taste, like civilization, is often in the eye of the beholder,” said Robert Tuttle, a professor of law and religion at George Washington University.

Mr. Tuttle encouraged Halloween revelers to put themselves in the shoes of those they are portraying. People have the right to dress up and say what they please but should be wary of dehumanizing others, he said.

Some will not care whom their costumes might offend. Others may offend people unintentionally, he said.

“It’s appropriate to acculturate folks. You don’t have to think of everything as being punished. There are ways for responsible people to register concern when something offends others,” Mr. Tuttle said.

Halloween carries age-old traditions of replicating the dead and evil spirits, and avoiding offense to every group is impossible, said Jon Wood, assistant professor of religion at George Washington University.

Still, Mr. Wood said, costumes should be chosen carefully.

“Respect the people you are around in any given setting,” Mr. Wood said. “Don’t single out any one religion or revered religious figure for mockery.”

Cheryl Wetzstein contributed to this report.

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