A Parent's Guide to Navigating Questionable Halloween Costumes

Understanding the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation is key when selecting Halloween costumes for kids and adults of all ages.

Pocahontas, Mulan, Frida Kahlo, Moana, Coco
Photo: Illustration by Sarina Finkelstein; Alamy (4); Getty Images (1)

Even for the craftiest, most imaginative moms and dads out there, year after year, Halloween brings about the same running list of questions: Which costume is the right fit for my child? If they're old enough to express it, which costume do they want to wear? Is it a costume I can purchase at the store, or do I have to make it? How long will it take to make? Which crafts and fabrics do I need to have on hand? Before you know it, a one-day celebration has morphed into a month-long marathon—the joys of parenting, right?

Once plans are in place, it's just as vital to take a minute and reflect on the costume you—and maybe your kids—have selected: Could it be construed as culturally appropriative? As traditionally marginalized communities have become more vocal—and rightfully so—about their cultures being taken from without proper credit or acknowledgment, understanding your role in broaching the topic of cultural appropriation within your household is as critical as ever. Halloween is an ideal time to do just that.

"Cultural appropriation is important to consider during Halloween because this is the time of year when we are most likely to dress up in a costume that is representative of another culture," says Mia Moody-Ramirez, Ph.D., professor of journalism, public relations, and new media in Baylor University's College of Arts & Sciences. "Common cultural appropriation missteps include darkening one's face, wearing ethnic garb, and/or dressing up to provoke laughter rather than show respect for a group or person."

Dr. Moody-Ramirez is a nationally recognized expert on mass media representations of minorities, women, and other underrepresented groups, and has co-authored the book From Blackface to Black Twitter: Reflections on Black Humor, Race, Politics, & Gender.

Here are some guidelines to follow when selecting your child's (or your own) Halloween costume.

1. Broadly speaking, tribal markings, headdresses, and turbans are not appropriate costume attire.

This is because they are tied to a specific ceremony or religious meaning. And while it may be tempting to dress a child up as Coco from the Disney movie because it would be "so cute" and make for an adorable Instagram post, if the child has no Mexican and/or Indigenous ancestry, that decision should be reconsidered.

"In general, when considering a costume, think of whether it would show honor or disrespect for a group or person," Dr. Moody-Ramirez advises. "If you or your child doesn't know the meaning of her culture and the ethnic attire under consideration for a Halloween costume, it's not a good idea to wear it. Imitating Coco, or wearing a sugar skull costume, is offensive because the Day of the Dead, or Día de Los Muertos, is an important holiday in Mexico. It is a time for reflection, prayer, and honoring the deceased."

The same line of critical thinking should be applied to other popular Disney characters like Pocahontas, Mulan, and Moana. There is, however, a fine line between appropriation and appreciation, and teaching that to kids as early as possible will only serve to benefit them in the future. Perhaps the most valuable lesson? Within one culture, there will be different and at times conflicting opinions about what's considered appropriative versus appreciative.

"As a Native Hawaiian, I am not personally offended by children dressing up as Moana, not only because I think the values the character demonstrates are a positive representation of Pacific Islanders and our wayfinding history, but also because she portrays positive attributes of bravery, curiosity, strength, creativity, and Aloha (love, compassion, grace)," explains Jalene Kanani Bell, a Native Hawaiian artist and product designer. "[These are] traits I think we would like all our children to have. I also think it is an opportunity for our island kids to see other ethnicities appreciating our cultures, normalizing our languages, and honoring our values. That said, I have used the word 'personally' because there are definitely differing opinions, and Polynesia is made up of many different and distinct island cultures, of which Hawaii is only one."

2. Do your due diligence to understand what's harmful.

How can parents do a better job of understanding which costumes are harmful and are appropriating from various cultures? Conducting some research—and, more importantly, being deliberate about it—is a good place to start.

"A little time and research on Google, just like you do when you want to buy a new car, can give you some insight," Kanani Bell says. "See how they came to developing that costume, how is it viewed in real life, what was the inspiration behind patterns, colors, styles? Do they have a connection to the host culture? Is there a lot of controversy? Take advantage of this teaching moment with your kids. Then use your best common sense to determine if you are honoring the culture in a respectful manner at the right opportunity."

All this being said, dressing up as someone you are not, which is precisely the point of costumes, is certainly not completely off-limits.

"Halloween is a magical time when children get to be somebody else, but that does not give them a license to cause harm," says Brigitte Vézina, a fellow at the Center for International Governance Innovation who has written about curbing cultural appropriation in the fashion industry. "This is a delicate line to walk because we value multiculturalism as a pillar of democratic societies, and we don't want to fence off cultures at the risk of suffocating them. The key is to be mindful and to show respect for the source culture and community."

3. Use caution with historical figures.

That's really where the education component comes into play. When it comes to historical figures, Dr. Moody-Ramirez says context is key. "Many historical figures represent an era during which oppression was common so it is important to know the history behind these historical figures," she says. "When I searched for historical costumes for boys, suggestions included Ben Franklin, George Washington, Robert E. Lee, a cowboy, a gangster, and a pilgrim. Some of these are less appropriate than others. For instance, I would not want my child to imitate Robert E. Lee."

Also, it is important to consider if you can separate the real person from the marginalized culture. Instead of dressing your child up as Frida Kahlo, assuming they do not have Mexican heritage, encourage them to dress as a non-descript painter, but then engage in a history lesson about Frida and her life before they go trick-or-treating. Considering the elements of magical realism in Frida's work, another idea is opting for a vaguely magical creature like a butterfly or fairy as an alternative costume.

4. Choose costumes that are not tied to one culture or heritage.

Other safe bets? Athletes, musicians, and other public figures that aren't directly tied to one culture or heritage. And when in doubt, avoid the costume-in-a-bag route. Many of these are blatantly appropriative and, even worse, do not support or give back to the host culture.

"Rather than buying a ready-made costume, try to interpret the values and the characteristics that you admire—courage, freedom, determination, creativity—in your own way by creating a DIY costume where you can let your imagination run free and give it your personal touch," Vézina says. "Rather than a cheap knock-off, buy an authentic piece of clothing or accessory created by a designer from the source community or from an approved collaboration, thereby encouraging a genuine expression and representation of their culture. Let them be the voices of their own culture."

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