Family, Kids & Relationships

When your child wants to wear a problematic Halloween costume

Pinterest LinkedIn Tumblr

Have all your kids’ Halloween costumes been… appropriate?

Some of the costumes we wore as kids can be seen as offensive these days, given what we understand now about the harm they can cause the people and cultural groups they represent, the stereotypes they perpetuate, and the way they trivialize people’s real lived struggles. 

Appreciation vs. appropriation

There are certainly ways to borrow from a culture that shows appreciation—like learning to cook authentic Mexican food from a Mexican friend, studying martial arts with a culturally adept instructor, or attending cultural festivals.

Cultural appropriation, on the other hand, happens when people from a majority group pick certain elements (like clothing, hair, tattoos, etc) of a culture they’re not a part of, and use them for fun, entertainment, or profit. It reduces a whole group of people to a stereotype.

How to avoid appropriation

Most of the time people aren’t trying to be disrespectful or dismissive of a culture, they just don’t understand the connection. So how can we make sure to appreciate rather than approriate? Here are some guidelines to keep in mind:

  • Before “borrowing” cultural elements, start by learning about the culture from people who are part of it (visit authentic restaurants, attend cultural events, read books about the culture, etc.).
  • Credit the culture of origin for anything you do “borrow.”
  • Ask yourself:
  1. Is there a history of discrimination against this identity or group I’m trying to represent?
  2. Is this potentially going to perpetuate negative stereotypes?
  3. Am I trying to represent an entire culture or ethnicity?
  4. Does this mock cultural or religious symbols (dreadlocks, headdresses, afros, bindis, etc) or use them out of context?
  5. Does this offend anyone from the cultural group of origin?

The last point is especially important, and is just a good general rule — the person or group that is offended decides whether or not something is offensive. It doesn’t matter whether we think it “should” be offensive, and pointing out that we didn’t intend to offend anyone, while it might be true, isn’t the same as apologizing for hurting them. 

FInally, remember that there are other types of problematic costumes to watch out for — namely, any costumes that trivialize human suffering, oppression, or marginalization (such as portraying a person who’s unhoused, imprisoned, a person with disabilities, a person with mental illness, or a disease like COVID that’s killed millions of people). Costumes like these send a message that we’re willing to use others’ suffering for our own entertainment, and reduce entire groups of people to a stereotype.

What to say to your child

Have you ever had to talk to your child about a potentially problematic costume? Below is a sample script for what the conversation might sound like if a child wanted to dress up as a Native American for Halloween, but you could adapt it to suit any type of costume that feels potentially problematic.

Validate (or ask) why it’s important to them

What made you think of that? I know, you really love watching Pochahontas, don’t you? And you love her pretty clothes.

Offer some context or history

“Did you know that Pochahontas was a real person? Except that wasn’t her real name, and the true story was a lot more complicated than the movie. We can look it up together to learn more about her life and her culture.”

Explain how other cultures are treated differently

“But basically, people (like, for example, people with disabilities) and cultural groups (like Native Americans) that have less power are often treated badly, made fun of, or hurt in different ways.”

“So when a person or whole culture is reduced just to a costume we can put on and take off, without us really understanding the meaning behind it or the struggles those people have been through, it can feel hurtful to them.” 

Offer examples they might understand

“When I was a kid a popular costume was ‘hobo,’ which was just sloppy clothes and pretending not to have a home. But can you imagine how icky that would feel to someone who really didn’t have a home? To know kids are dressing up as your really hard life, but for fun, and then just taking it off at the end of the night and going back to their regular lives?” 

“We didn’t mean anything bad by it, but it made light of a serious situation without us appreciating how difficult it really is. So we don’t use that as a costume anymore.”

Offer alternatives

“I know you just want to wear the costume because you love the movie! It’s not your fault that history can be so complicated. But since we’re not from an Indigenous culture like Pochahontas, and we’d be wearing clothes like hers just for fun, we should choose a different costume.”

“Maybe you could dress up as an explorer to honor her bravery and leadership, or you could pick a costume celebrating OUR culture, like [share a figure or aspect from your own culture, such as an Irish dancer or a great Dutch artist like Rembrandt]!”

Robyn is Editor-in-Chief at ParentsTogether and is co-author of several NYTimes bestselling anthologies. She lives in southern Michigan with her husband and five children.