It’s that time of year when, in the United States, many children and adults alike, dress up in fantastic costumes and celebrate Halloween. From what was once a parade of costumed children looking for sweet treats, it has now become an elaborate costume party with festivals, parties, movie events, and so much more. And think not that I condemn it. My closet is full of my old costumes. My daughter and I, ourselves, have been a crazy cat lady and a cat, a shepherd girl and a lamb , and gasp… Elsa and Anna from Frozen among many other sickeningly cute combos. But as much as the two of us love Halloween, as a Dual Language educator, acutely aware of the racism our students face daily, and as a person of color, I do worry about the amount of cultural appropriation that occurs during this month.
What is cultural appropriation? Cultural appropriation is the taking or borrowing of something from someone else’s culture without their permission and/or without understanding its significance. While wearing someone else’s cultural attire is not always cultural appropriation, wearing it as a costume is. Let’s look at some examples.
A friend of mine of Mexican descent visited me when I was at my grandparents’ house in New York over a decade ago. She told me how beautiful she found my grandmother’s sari and asked if it would be disrespectful to wear one. We gladly shared a sari with her and took pictures. She learned from us how to wear it and bought one herself on a trip with me to an Indian clothing store so that she could wear her own whenever she visited me. Clearly, her wearing a sari did not bother us. We were glad to share our culture, and she showed in return appreciation for the opportunity to wear the sari. In this case, she clearly wore it with our permission and understood its significance as a symbol of my cultural heritage. This was cultural appreciation.
However, this is very different from purchasing the same sari for Halloween. Or wearing a bindi, which also has cultural significance in India, with a pair of jeans and a flower crown to dress up as a guest at Coachella. Our clothing and adornments are not “costumes.” Therefore, such use of our culture would, instead, be cultural appropriation. (Wearing a bindi at Coachella would also be cultural appropriation if you were wondering.)
Any time you or your little one adorns yourselves with clothing or jewelry from a minority culture as a costume, it is cultural appropriation. This includes all Native American costumes or stereotypical Mexican costumes (sombreros, serapes, etc.) Disney costumes do not get a free pass either. While Jasmine, Mulan, Pocohontas, and Coco are great attempts to add to Disney’s cultural repertoire, they are not great Halloween costumes. They reduce the culture of an entire people to a gimmicky source of entertainment. Deities and saints from religions not your own are also off limit. Would you like someone reducing your religion to a Halloween costume? And let’s not even consider blackface. By now, hopefully, we all have understood the racism embedded in this practice.
If your children or students are, however, attracted to these costumes (or even if they are not), you can use Halloween as an opportunity to build their sociocultural competence. Here are a few discussion points you can address with them.
- Talk to students about what cultural appropriation is and what the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation is. Use the questions here to help guide the discussion.
- Share with students the posters from Ohio University’s campaign, “We’re a culture, not a costume.” What message are the artists trying to communicate? How do the subjects in the posters feel? How do you know? What makes these posters powerful?
- Explain to students the origins of blackface. Explain to them how in the 1830s, White performers known as minstrels dressed up with black smeared over their faces and then how they mocked enslaved African Americans by dancing and talking in exaggerated manners. Teach them that the first such famous, black-faced “character” was named Jim Crow, a name subsequently used for the cruel and racist system of segregation against Black people in the South.
- Ask students to brainstorm ways to appreciate cultures without appropriating them. Attending cultural festivals, reading books from other cultures, making friends across cultures, and learning languages are all ways to appreciate cultures rather than to appropriate them.
- Teach students that it’s not enough to be “not racist,” but they need to be antiracist. How would they react if they see a friend or relative wearing a culturally-insensitive, Halloween costume? Would they be brave enough to call out the cultural appropriation? Consider rehearsing in pairs what students would say.
And then, go out in culturally appropriate rather than culturally appropriated costumes for a night of sheer fun. I guarantee you that my daughter and I will. Happy Halloween!