Halloween is a time when children and adults alike get to dress up and let loose. But when choosing a costume, UBC Faculty of Education professor Mona Gleason cautions that some looks may be scary in more ways than one — they could cross the line into racism, sexism, and just plain offensiveness.
What is cultural appropriation, and how does it show up at Halloween?
Cultural appropriation means taking elements of other peoples’ cultural symbols and using them in a way that is disrespectful. When we see, for example, kids or adults dressing up in First Nations costumes with feathers in their hair or tomahawks, those are not only cultural appropriations, they’re also bordering on racist and inaccurate depictions.
Many people are invested in education around respectful engagement with different cultures. When people wear these old, often racist and often very hurtful stereotypical costumes thinking it’s just all in the spirit of having a good time, it really can undo a lot of the good work that’s been done in schools or other educational outlets.
What are other red flags that come up at Halloween?
There are definitely sexist and inappropriate costumes out there. Big companies are just waiting to hand people these prepackaged Halloween costumes. Last year, a Vancouver mom took pictures of some of the costumes being sold and they went viral on social media. They were over-sexualized costumes for young girls that were also quite sexist. The message was that young girls can only be sexy nurses or tarted-up princesses at Halloween.
There is something really disturbing about the societal expectation that little girls who dress up have to perform a role that’s associated with people who are older and able to make decisions about their sexuality. Sexualizing young kids is not appropriate. We’re terrified as a culture about what might happen to little kids if they are put at risk in social situations. So why would we send a little girl out on Halloween night dressed up like a woman?
On the other side of the equation there are very stereotypical boys’ costumes: the firefighters, the police officers. What if a little boy wants to dress up like a princess or mermaid? If little boys can’t go out on Halloween dressed the way they want, that also sends a strong message.
What do you think is behind the sale of these costumes?
Money. Companies make more money if they can sell versions of the same costume. It’s also filling a need: Parents are busy and they’re overwhelmed. When Halloween approaches, the companies swoop right in and say, “Hey, your kid wants to be a princess? We’ve got that covered right here.”
There’s nothing wrong with parents going out and buying a little princess costume for their child. But do it with eyes wide open. Is it sexist or racist? If we really value kids, if they are our future, we want to make sure we’re supporting them in learning how to be contributing citizens and not just people who are exploited.
What guidelines should people follow when it comes to choosing a costume for themselves or their children?
Use common sense. Don’t fall into that trap of thinking that Halloween is a time when all the rules of respective social interaction go out the window. I think it’s always been the case that Halloween is a time when some people think they have permission to act badly, and I think that that’s a very dangerous way to think.
Ask yourself: Is this a costume that belittles either the wearer or is it a belittling reference to someone else? When someone’s costume pivots on humiliation, whether it’s of the wearer or someone else, I think we should say, ‘No, that’s not what our society is about’.
If you’re not sure if a costume is offensive, don’t wear it. And don’t be disingenuous about particular things in history. Often the people who are wearing these offensive costumes are not the ones who are most vulnerable; they have social power by virtue of their race or class. I saw recently a tweet from a member of a First Nation, pointing out that they didn’t know anyone in their community who wore a headdress as some sort of costume celebration at Halloween. So why would they want to see that happening on Halloween night?