Photo: Courtesy of Disney
Now that it’s October, kids and their parents are on the hunt for that perfect Halloween costume—something special, unique, scary or fun. That’s what the holiday is about after all: dressing up and collecting yummy treats. But for racialized Canadians such as myself—I’m a Black Canadian born to Ethiopian immigrants—there’s one aspect of the holiday that can be much less fun: seeing our culture and race hanging among the selection at the local costume shop.
There are some costumes that we would all agree are distasteful. Blackface, for example, is considered outright racist by just about everyone at this point. Yet there are still many mainstream stores that carry, for example, “Native American” costumes. This despite years of being told by Indigenous communities that these costumes perpetuate stereotypes about their culture and history.
Some argue that these costumes celebrate their referenced cultures—but I believe that argument misses two main points. First, since most of them are based on stereotypes, they don’t actually teach our children about different cultures; rather, they perpetuate narratives that community members repeatedly state are negative and harmful. Second, there is no evidence to indicate that this practice increases tolerance or has a positive impact on children, white or not. Often the outfit that’s been made into a costume is ceremonial, and for those of us from the misrepresented culture, it can be jarring to see our clothes, jewellery and hair styles misappropriated in this way.
It’s not as easy as just avoiding the “Mexican Boy” or “Native Girl” costumes. Even Disney’s offerings can be problematic. As a parent, I understand the desire to share our childhood favourites with our kids. I grew up watching Disney movies and looked forward to sharing them with my kids. However, the truth is that Disney has a history of racist and otherwise offensive behaviour. In fact, the company is aware of this and has taken steps to become more diverse and ensure that representations of cultures are true to life. While making Moana, for example, the producers included members of Pacific Islander communities as writers and in other roles. Yet, the merchandise released alongside the movie included a controversial Maui costume which featured brown skin decorated with traditional Maori tattoos. This costume was emblematic of the problem with dressing as a character who is a member of a marginalized race or culture: Not only did it include a version of brownface, but it failed to recognize the cultural significance of Maori tattoos. Instead, the costume perpetuated stereotypes, and attempted to commodify a sacred ritual. After backlash from the public, including members of the Pacific Islander community, Disney quickly stopped selling the costume, and apologized.
Yet, some parents can't see any problem with their white children wanting to dress up as racialized characters. It can potentially be done inoffensively, depending on the choice of character and details of the costume, but knowing exactly where to draw the line isn’t easy. Admittedly, there isn’t even consensus among people of colour. Making it harder still is the fact that most of us have no intention to cause harm—we just want our kids to love their costume, and it’s hard to say no and feel like we're depriving them of joy. But, as I often tell my own kids, it doesn’t matter that we intend no harm; the impact of our actions outweigh our intentions. Why else do we apologize for accidentally stepping on someone’s toe?
So what do we do when our child is adamant about wanting to dress in a costume that's problematic? I believe this is a good opportunity to talk to our kids about values such as tolerance and respect. We all learn eventually that we can't always have our way, and this is as good a time as any. Yes, it’s hard to talk to our children about injustice, but when we fail to address topics like racism and cultural appropriation with our kids, we do them a disservice. We also reinforce the biases that they pick up from their own experiences, and fail to give them the tools they need to understand, and eventually help to dismantle, oppression.
I would love to be able to provide parents with a list of questions to ask themselves before they allow their kids (or themselves) to wear a specific costume, but it just isn’t that simple. The only thing we can do is take the time to listen to voices of those who are directly impacted by the decisions we make and err on the side of caution. If something feels like it could be problematic, then it probably is. By starting these conversations with our kids, and being mindful about how our costume choices affect our neighbours and community members, we can ensure Halloween remains a fun holiday for all Canadians.