Halloween is swiftly approaching and, as per usual for 2017 and the opinionated voices of the internet, there has been quite some controversy over what is and is not appropriate for costumes when it comes to cultural appropriation. I say ‘costumes’ and not ‘Halloween costumes’ because my children, and I am assuming most children, don’t limit costume wearing to October 31.
In Raising Race Conscious Children, Sachi Feris wrote “Moana, Elsa, and Halloween,” which helped originally spark this conversation on cross-cultural costume wearing. It started over a small white child wanting to dress as Moana, the Disney princess from a Pacific Island. Our friends at Austin Moms Blog do a nice job following up this article and presenting both sides of the argument in Michelle Reyes’ post, “Should Your Kid Wear a Cross-Cultural Costume at Halloween?” Feris and co-writer Lori Riddick also write a great follow up to Feris’ original post with, “Halloween as an opportunity to dismantle White supremacy: Three Things We Believe This Halloween.”
To sum it up for you, many voices of the internet agree that we should not dress up as a specific person when it means we are CLEARLY making fun of that person. However, this year the hubbub seemed to go a bit far, in my opinion. Now, it feels like in order to be safe and “in the right,” our children cannot dress as characters of a different race. I am here to tell you that line of thinking is wrong.
Before I begin, I am the first to say I am fortunate that I have not been the victim of a lifetime of oppression or the product of generations of oppression. I realize that my views reflect my history and that people and cultures in the minority will have a different outlook than me.
My children are African American and White. I will tell you right now that there are NOT a lot of mainstream popular characters who are like them. Should I tell my daughter that her only option is to dress as Tiana from The Princess and the Frog, if she wants to be a Disney princess because of the color of her skin? And if my daughter wanted to be Moana instead, and I told her she couldn’t, aren’t I inadvertently telling her that it’s not OK to be Polynesian? And do my sons even have an option if they want to be a Disney prince?
Not only does this all seem a bit backwards to me, it simply misses the mark. By limiting my children to costumes that fit their race or saying that other children must do the same, I am further perpetuating that racial stereotype. I am teaching them that the most important quality of that character is the color of his or her skin and ignoring everything else.
There have been some amazing female Disney characters recently. Moana took it upon herself to save her village. Tiana was a hardworking entrepreneur who wanted to create a better life for herself and fulfill her dead father’s dream. Mulan went to war to save her country. Surely those are the qualities we want to highlight in these characters and not the color of their skin.
So, perhaps you say, those are fictional characters and that isn’t the problem. The problem is people who dress like another person or group of people.
You are right if the intent of that costume is to mock a culture. However, consider for a moment that your child is not laughing at that culture but is truly in awe of the person or the traditions. For instance, my daughter loves hijabs. She admires the ones that are made of beautiful fabrics and genuinely loves the idea of wearing something on her head and shoulders. It has never crossed her mind that she is mocking an entire culture. I am doing a disservice to my daughter and to the culture by simply telling her that she is being disrespectful and not allowing her to wear her scarf around her head. I am better off by teaching her the meaning of the hijab or finding someone from that culture who can tell her about it.
As a more mundane example, when my youngest brother was in fifth grade, he was fortunate enough to have a male teacher. There aren’t a lot of male elementary school teachers out there, and this was a blessing to the class for many reasons. This particular teacher wore short sleeve plaid shirts to school frequently. The children loved him, and guess what? By the end of the year, all of the little boys were wearing short sleeve plaid shirts. They weren’t mocking him but genuinely thought he was amazing and wanted to be like him. It wasn’t just the shirt they liked about him, but that was the best way those children could express their love and admiration for that teacher. It is true that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
I am not saying that it is always right to dress like another person or group. I remember a Halloween in high school where two of my friends dressed as another two of our friends. We laughed, but it doesn’t mean that it was appropriate. I will also say that I am mortified to admit how many inappropriately themed fraternity parties I attended in college.
The thing is, that doesn’t have to be your child, and it doesn’t have to be you.
Here are some ways that you can teach your children about diverse cultures in a respectful way:
We are so lucky in 2017 to have a large range of cultural books to read to our children. Read the stories that celebrate different people and places. Talk about what you read. As we all know, children are curious and will ask about anything. Take the time to answer their questions. Check out these two articles with some terrific books on how to talk to your children about race and the world.
Talk about it.
Teach your children what you know about different cultures. If you don’t know the answers, look it up together. For example, did you know there is a safety reason why military men are required to be clean shaven? I used to think it was an appearance thing and that the military required it so that everyone looked the same. Turns out that the gas masks don’t fit correctly if you have a beard! This is a silly example, but you get the point — instead of shrugging your shoulders or rolling your eyes, figure out answers!
Expose your children to different cultures.
Travel if you can, attend festivals, and find people who celebrate different traditions and engage in cultural practices different from your own. The most effective way to combat racism and ignorance is through education. Allow your children to learn about others, and if there is a cultural reason why they cannot participate in a tradition, teach them the reason why.