Cultural Appropriation and Halloween Costumes

October 30, 2023, sierraharlan

Cultural appropriation and Halloween go together like peas in a pod. When you look for Halloween costumes, you will find kits that imitate aspects of minority cultures or cultural stereotypes. For example, dressing as a Native American has been a popular costume for years.Little kids in costume running on green grass

As a white parent, I’ve been thinking a lot about what things I can do early on to help my daughter (who is only 6 months old) learn to respect other cultures and appreciate diversity. Having books with diverse characters is one simple step that parents can take early on to help children have cultural appreciation. If you are looking for a simple, free way to get books with diverse characters, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library is a great resource. They send a free book to your child monthly, and the only requirement is that you have a child between the ages of birth to five years old.

What is cultural appropriation?

The Cambridge Dictionary defines cultural appropriation as “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.” Wearing or enjoying aspects of a culture that is not your own is not always cultural appropriation. For example, when I was in high school, I had two friends who were exchange students from India. They invited me to try on one of their sari dresses, and we took pictures together. They told me about the festivals they attended each year, and we watched videos of some of the traditional dances they participated in. Being invited to wear the sari and learn about my friends’ culture was an honor. However, it would be cultural appropriation if I bought a sari and dressed up with it for Halloween, turning an important part of a group of people’s culture into a “costume.”

This video from Teen Vogue explains cultural appropriation well and is less than 5 minutes. It further explains the harm of turning an aspect of someone’s culture into a costume.

Happy brother and two sisters on Halloween. Funny kids in carnival costumes indoors. Cheerful children play with pumpkins and candy.Cultural appropriation doesn’t only apply to costumes. A few weeks ago, I thought briefly about picking up some Tibetan prayer flags to hang on a blank wall in my house. I’ve seen this in friends’ homes over the years. I quickly realized that this would be blatant cultural appropriation. I know little about Tibetan prayer flags, and I would hang them up because of how they look, not because of the importance they hold for some groups of people. This would be turning an important part of someone’s culture into a decoration. If my daughter were older, I would have shared this thought process that I went through with her. We are all learning and growing, and sharing this part of yourself with your children can help them have flexible thinking and be open to learning.

There is an added layer of harm that I can do when I consider cultural appropriation and how much privilege I hold as a white person. I can “take” a part of someone’s culture and try it on as a costume or use it in other ways without experiencing the different forms of oppression that folks from that particular culture experience. These are also conversations that I will one day have with my daughter. The website has a great article that has some suggestions for navigating conversations with your child if they want to wear a costume that could be culturally offensive.

Deciding if something is cultural appropriation

Sometimes, it may be hard to tell if a costume is a form of cultural appropriation or not. This article by Slate News has a list of questions to help answer that question. Consider:

  1. Is the costume racially, ethically or culturally based? If the answer is yes, this is a form of appropriation.
  2. Do you belong to that group of people? If the answer is no, this is a form of appropriation. Change the costume.

Happy excited kids in Halloween costumes stand close on green grass of the fieldHow to talk with your kids about cultural appropriation

We grow through discomfort. Having conversations with our kids about important topics like cultural appropriation might be uncomfortable but it is so important and an incredible teaching opportunity that you have as a parent. If your child wants to wear a costume that represents someone else’s culture you can start by connecting with them. Talk about why they like that costume (i.e. maybe it’s a favorite movie or book character). Depending on your child’s age, you can discuss how using someone’s culture as a costume can be offensive and even harmful. Offer to help your child learn about that particular culture and encourage them to appreciate other cultures. Lastly, support them in coming up with a different costume idea that is appropriate.