A Parent's Guide to Questionable Halloween Decor
While making your yard the neighborhood favorite for trick or treaters, here's how to make sure it's friendly for all families to enter the fun.
While Halloween is the perfect time of year to let your own inner child run loose, it's important to do it through a lens of sensitivity. But before anyone starts yelling about snowflakes and decrying an overly politically correct populace, let's pause and take a look at some of the problematic decor decisions that have recently appeared in the news.
Bed Bath and Beyond stopped the sale of black pumpkins with faces drawn with white paint after complaints that the jack o' lanterns resembled blackface (which started from racist minstrel shows of the 1800s where white performers would dress up as exaggerated and demeaning racial stereotypes). According to The New York Times, Wilbur T. Aldridge, the regional director for the N.A.A.C.P. in Westchester, where the complaints originated, said, “I’m not against black pumpkins, but when you paint the white face on it, that—you’ve crossed the line.”
The Times also reported on a window display in a home across the street from an elementary school in Brooklyn that consisted of brown paper dolls hanging from nooses. A black mother who was walking her child to school saw the display and complained to the school, and the homeowner removed the decorations and issued an apology explaining that the dolls were based on the film Annabelle. In her apology, she stated that "because they were made of brown craft paper and hanging from nooses, they were deeply racially offensive." She added, "No one should have had to point out this obvious fact to me" and "right now I am exploring ways in which I can make amends that will be both meaningful and acceptable to the community."
On the other end of the spectrum is a homeowner in Long Island who hung a noose from a tree in his front yard. His mail carrier, who is black, voiced concern and said he was uncomfortable delivering mail to the home. The homeowner, Richard Beatty, refused to remove the noose or offer an apology. When asked by the Times why he thought there had been complaints, he responded, "Obviously because they're stuck in the past. This is 2019, nobody is getting lynched. Nobody has been hung in the last 100 years." He added, "It's history. Get over it." But Beatty is wrong. Alabama teenager Michael Donald was murdered by the Klu Klux Klan in a brutal attack and lynching in 1981—less than 40 years ago. And it's exactly that kind of horrendous recent history that demands awareness and sensitivity when creating scary Halloween scenes around your home or in your yard.
Halloween is fun. People love getting dressed up and decorating their homes, increasing the spook-value. But it should also be a time of cultural sensitivity. Just like how we should think critically about dressing up as characters or historical figures from cultures that are not your own, we should consider the potential harm that comes the decorations we choose to display.
From nooses hanging in the front yard or images of brown children being hung, much of the symbolism involved is rooted in real-life, historical atrocity. The history of cultural violence is very real and its impact should be considered when choosing decorations. Neighbors of all ethnicities should feel comfortable, welcome, excited, and most importantly safe when walking door-to-door, but, regardless of the intent, some of these decorations have an extremely negative impact.
It all boils down to empathy. When choosing decorations, ask yourself how they might make your neighbors and their children feel. A little internet search can go a long way. Type "Is _____ offensive" into your favorite search engine and chances are you'll find the information you're looking for in short order. Whether it's a noose, a black jack-o-lantern, or a sugar skull, the answers are only a click away.
For instance, sugar skulls, which have grown by leaps and bounds in mainstream U.S. popularity over the last decade, are traditionally used to celebrate Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead. The intricately decorated skulls are used to honor ancestors and are an incredibly important part of the holiday's traditions. But since they're the perfect combination of beautiful and spooky, people think they are a trendy, quirky way to decorate for Halloween. Co-opting spiritual Dia de los Muertos traditions as part of your casual Halloween decor is...not a good look. However, using Halloween as an opportunity to teach your kids about other cultural holidays is a great one.
In the case of the noose, a quick Google search brings up a wealth of information. The very first result comes from the Antidefamation League and states, "The hangman's noose has come to be one of the most powerful visual symbols directed against African-Americans, comparable in the emotions that it evokes to that of the swastika for Jews. Its origins are connected to the history of lynching in America, particularly in the South after the Civil War, when violence or threat of violence replaced slavery as one of the main forms of social control that whites used on African-Americans. The noose quickly became associated with the Ku Klux Klan."
Is that really the kind of decoration you want hanging in your yard?
In an interview with the New York Times, L. Joy Williams, president of the Brooklyn chapter of the NAACP stated it quite clearly: "The lesson here is for people to note how their decorations can be perceived, no matter of their intent, whether it's their body and their property."
Looking for a safe bet? Go fictional: Skeletons have never walked the earth, zombies don't really hunt for brains, and vampires don't lurk around dark corners, but they do make for a supernatural, out-of-this-world haunted house.
The Bottom Line
Halloween should be fun for everyone. No one should wonder if the person whose door they're knocking on harbors ill will or hatred toward them and no one should feel physically unsafe. A little scared all in the Halloween fun, yes, but not afraid or unwelcome. A little bit of forethought, a pinch of common sense, and a sprinkling of empathy and love for your neighbors is really all you need to have a festive Halloween where everyone feels welcome.