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Cultural appropriation is a hot topic, especially when it comes to Halloween. There is wide-spread confusion and disagreement over what constitutes cultural appropriation and how (if) someone can dress up in a costume that uses traditional symbols from a culture to which they do not belong. This becomes even more of an issue when kids want to dress up as characters with whom they differ in race and culture. Today’s Parent published a piece this week entitled ‘Why your white kid probably shouldn’t dress up as Moana for Halloween.’ In the article, writer Eden Hagos outlines reasons why it can be offensive for white children to don the costumes of characters of colour. These are important conversations to be having right now, but we need to come from a place of understanding.

What exactly is cultural appropriation?

Put simply, cultural appropriation is when one culture takes elements from another. The concept is problematized when there is an uneven power dynamic and a dominant culture takes pieces from a minority or historically oppressed culture without understanding the meaning of those pieces. Wearing a costume that takes symbols from another culture perpetuates stereotypes, trivializes symbolic items and reduces a person’s whole livelihood to a costume.

Appropriation vs. appreciation

Cultural appreciation is different (but rarely what’s happening on Halloween). Real cultural appreciation is when someone genuinely wants to learn about another culture and immerse themselves in it. This includes interacting with the people, learning what symbols mean, understanding traditional customs and knowing the history and challenges of the people.

What about my costume?

Basically, if your costume is associated with a culture you’re not a part of, you might be in trouble. A good litmus test is if your potential costume includes religious or spiritual items. If it does and those symbols have a history that you don’t have a deep understanding of, it’s probably not a good idea. This is one of the few times when you should stand back and consider ‘What would people think?’ If there’s any chance that a group could be offended, just don’t do it.

What about my kid’s costume?

When white kids ask to be Moana or Mulan or Pocahontas for Halloween, they’re not considering the social and cultural implications of their choice. That’s your job as the parent. In Hagos’ article, she explains that allowing your child to dress up as a character with whom they do not share a culture is problematic because it doesn’t actually do much to educate about culture and the costumes themselves are often based in racist stereotypes. The company may be doing better now, but historically Disney isn’t exactly known for its progressive embodiment of informed diversity.

This creates an opportunity to talk to your kids about the issues of cultural appropriation and racism in terms of tolerance and respect. They may not understand the nuances of societal problems yet, but we do everyone a (potentially dangerous) disservice by not addressing these issues with children.

When in doubt, choose something else

Remember, Halloween costumes are supposed to be fun and creative. Encourage your child to come up with something original. Everyone dresses up as a Disney princess, pick something totally out of the box and make a costume together instead of just picking one up at Walmart. It’s really not that hard to avoid appropriating other people’s cultures on Halloween. If you’re concerned you might offend someone, just pick something else.