A Practical Guide For Not Dressing Kids In Horrifically Offensive Halloween Costumes

Party City

moana and pocohantas
Party City

Halloween season is upon us, and every parent is currently planning out what costume their children will wear for parties, events, and trick-or-treating.  Kids are gearing up to campaign for the costume of their dreams and parents are counting pennies to be sure they can oblige. With recent hit films like Moana, Coco, and Black Panther, costume ideas seem like no-brainers.  But what happens when white children want to dress up as their favorite POC (person of color) for the festivities? White parents, especially, this one's for you. I am going to gently hold your hand and guide you all through the tricky task of enjoying a fun holiday without appropriating culture or being offensive to POC communities, histories, and spirituality.

  • We have all experienced this awkward scenario in some way or another.

    We see the cutest most, Very White child dressed as their favorite POC public figure or fictional character. White parents aplenty are proud of these costumes, but they recognize POC parents gather their children and briskly walk away, while sucking their teeth, rolling their eyes, and shaking their head with a look of disgust directed towards the child and parent. The instinct is to become defensive, thinking someone is being rude to an innocent child during a fun holiday.

    But the truth is, who our children are is an accumulation of factors, many of which are who we allow them to be, the behaviors we encourage and enable, and the things we simply overlook because we aren’t affected by those factors ourselves. People aren’t judging your children during Halloween. They’re judging you. 

    Then you think to find a loophole. Next time, I’ll skip the box braids, or over drawing the lips, or the spray tan… "which IS NOT black face, btw!" Finding a loophole so that you can regain control over a situation and the distress it causes you doesn’t fix the underlying problem. The underlying problem is that racism is largely permissible in our country in many subliminal and nuanced ways. Children allowed to engage in racist behaviors and allowed to perpetuate racist ideas grow into adult racists.

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  • Discussing racial justice with children is not only possible, it doesn’t have to be filled with graphic imagery, harsh language, or power struggles.  

    Halloween is an excellent time to teach small lessons about racial justice through conversations about appropriating culture. Unlike appreciation, cultural appropriation is when a dominant group within a society (white people, for example) adopts aspects of culture from marginalized cultures within the population. Often when these aspects are adopted, they are done with no context of the original culture or community from which they’ve been derived. In contrast, appreciating a culture usually involves research and understanding of a culture as well as observing boundaries regarding not trivializing cultural garb and practices. Stripped of their historical and spiritual roots, the dominant culture usually reassigns meaning to those cultural elements. Reassigning meaning usually looks like calling a sari a princess dress ... calling cornrows “Dutch braids” (remember, the Dutch colonized parts of Africa, taking African cultural elements back to Europe) or “Boxer Braids.” 

  • So where does this fit in with Halloween? 

    During Halloween, many costumes connected to POC cultures are often stripped of their significance to the POC communities from which they’re derived. The costumes are just trivial, frivolous fun -- and they hold no meaning beyond that. Reassigning meaning also looks like considering characters like Moana, T’Challa (Black Panther), and Dora the Explorer to be fictional characters devoid of community or significance to the POC populations they represent. -- populations that often are underrepresented in mainstream media. Lastly, cultural appropriation involves a level of disregard for the ways in which POC cannot engage with their own cultural elements without being harmed by the dominant population within society.  For example, every year, we see videos and hear stories about black children being removed from schools because box braids, cornrows, and locs are violations of dress codes. Meanwhile, people who aren’t black are seen as hip, cool, and trendy for wearing the same hairstyles that cause problems for black children.

    Because conversations about racial justice and cultural appropriation are quite lengthy and nuanced, having a few tools in your pocket will help navigate these discussions with your children be more efficient and impactful.  

  • 1. Set a firm boundary.

    The hardest part about refusing to appropriate culture is being in a position of power that allows you to do things you probably shouldn’t, but you could.  Decide up front that the hard limit is no appropriating culture for holidays (or ever). Make that boundary clear. It simply is not and never will be an option. Teaching your children about this boundary will better help them to understand white entitlement when they grow older. Remember, being a culture vulture is also about disregarding consent for POC. Teach your children that POC consent matters and shouldn’t be violated.

    It's important to note power dynamics while discussing cultural appropriation. While black children dressing as Moana is religiously inappropriate and disrespectful, black people dressing as other POC cultures does nothing to defame and harm other POC communities or cultures for the most part because in terms of social justice, black people are still in a standing of lesser societal power.

  • 2. Guide your children towards showing appreciation for POC communities without trivializing cultural elements and spirituality.

    If you are the consumer type, buy your children posters, toys, books and T-shirts to support the communities and franchises they admire. Explain that this money goes to the POC actors who helped to create the things they love. If you are the hands-on type, trade an inappropriate costume for volunteering at a community center, doing story time, or engaging with a play group of predominantly POC.  Explain that playing with real children is so much more fun than pretending to be a POC. And if you are the conversational type, take time to research the historical connotations connections between films like Moana and Black Panther. Buy your children books and discuss the importance of these characters within the context of their respective communities. Teach your children that it is important to honor characters that are meaningful to POC communities, even if they don’t understand that meaning within their own lives. If you are the overachiever type, do all three.

  • 3. Offer alternatives.

    Research your own Eurocentric history, culture, and folklore. Share that with your children and recommend costumes within it.  Also offer new spins on classic favorites, like a Steampunk Alice in Wonderland or a Bedazzled Little Mermaid. Encourage creativity by creating costumes based on puns. Consider other favorites, such as mythical creatures and favorite animals. The options are limitless, when you set a firm boundary to not appropriate culture as a part of Halloween.

  • None of this means anything if you aren’t willing to openly discuss racial justice and cultural appropriation with your children. 

    It is imperative that we, as a society, become cognizant of social disparities among racial and ethnic groups. One of the most important things parents strive to teach their children is empathy for others. We fail when we hyper focus on empathy for white people, as they are over-represented in mass media from which many of our children learn. Teaching children about awareness and empathy for POC involves conversations about current events, such as the ways in which groups of children don’t have access to the same rights and resources white children do and the ways in which POC children don’t have the opportunity to fully engage safely with their own cultures the ways in which white children can engage with Eurocentric culture and POC culture with little to no repercussion. Teach children to be mindful and aware of the ways in which people are treated differently for things they can’t change about their bodies or their background. Most importantly, instill the boundary that just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. Setting limits will alleviate a future sense of white entitlement.

    Children are simultaneously impressionable and resilient. They will appreciate growing up to be adults who understand and respect boundaries and consent. They will respect knowing the difference between cultural appreciation which is heartwarming versus the damaging effects of appropriating culture. Creating social equity for tomorrow starts with deep conversations and a commitment to maintaining boundaries today.