A picture of a white man in blackface dressed as Trayvon Martin next to a man dressed as George Zimmerman recently made the rounds online, spurring controversy and a debate over what’s appropriate and what’s not when it comes to Halloween costumes.

Blackface and other racially and culturally insensitive costumes are a real problem, says Nydia Dauphin, who led an anti-racism discussion last night as part of the University Of the Streets Café.

Trayvon Martin

A man dressed as Trayvon Martin attended a Halloween party alongside another man dressed as George Zimmerman. (Facebook)

“Cultural appropriation is pretty much reducing a culture to symbols that are not attached to the context,” Dauphin says.

Fia Pinkhard works as a makeup artist at a Halloween costume shop in Montreal. She says she gets a number of requests to dress people up as black or Arab people.

“All the time. They do like a black man, Arabs with a turban on top. they want darker shades of their foundation colour and everything,” she says.

And it’s precisely this that’s the problem, Dauphin says.

“It’s very disturbing. It comes from a history of needing to dehumanize people of colour, black people, to reduce them to stereotypes,” she says.

Cultures are rich and complex — something that can’t be reduced to something so simple, Dauphin continues.

But for some, Halloween is a day to take time off from social taboos and to dress as one pleases.

Rabbi costume

A rabbi costume on sale at a Halloween store in Montreal. (CBC)

Tricia Jean works with Pinkhard at the costume store. She says it’s all in good fun.

“I don’t think the people who are doing it are doing it to offend other people,” Jean says.

Dauphin says that Halloween shouldn’t be an excuse to be insensitive.

“Would you be comfortable wearing those imitations in context or in situations where we are really celebrating those people’s culture? Would you wear blackface during Black History Month? Would you wear redface on National Aboriginal Day? I think the answer would almost always be no,” she says.

Teacher Jaime Sportun told CBC News while shopping for Halloween gear that she makes an effort to sensitize her students.

She showed them the picture of the men dressed as Martin and Zimmerman that day, and she says some students changed their tune over the course of the class discussion.

Still, she says, it’s not always obvious what some may consider offensive.

“There’s definitely a line that shouldn’t be crossed… but it’s hard to say exactly where,” Sportun says.