It’s a time for tricks and treats—but not offensive costumes, says one Ontario school board. Last week, the Conseil scolaire Viamonde, a public, French-language school board in central and southwest Ontario emailed parents a set of guidelines for this Halloween with some pointers on appropriate costume choices. Examples of outfits that shouldn’t be worn in their schools include anything that’s based on tragic moments in history (slaves, cowboys and Indians), represents a stereotype (such as an “urban ghetto dweller”) or mocks transgender people. Cultural appropriation is also verboten—so kimonos should stay at home (unless you’re Japanese).
While some critics accuse the board of taking political correctness too far, board spokeswoman Claire Francouer says it’s just a matter of simple respect and making sure everyone feels comfortable. Noting that this is the second year board has provided the guidelines to parents, she adds that there wasn’t one particular incident that inspired or incited the list. “The board, its teachers and employees, we sat together and said, ‘Okay, what are our values, and how can we help people think about it.’”
Francouer notes that this advice was meant as an aid to parents who, pressed for time, might be tempted to haul out old costumes that are less-than-appropriate in a diverse society. She says that most of the feedback so far from parents has been “very positive.” “They say, ‘It never occurred to me that this could be offensive but thank you for taking the time to help me think about that,’” she says.
While it’s not clear whether, going forward, other school boards across the country will follow suit, the aboriginal education department of Vancouver Public Schools has issued a memo to principals asking them to encourage their teachers to talk to students whose costume choice could be seen as mimicking other cultural, racial or ethnic groups. In Edmonton, Wolf Kolb, principal of Westlawn School says the public board there has not issued any guidelines “other than recommending that each school communicate what is appropriate at that site.” He says that any time there’s been an issue, it’s cropped up with older students.
But Kolb adds that he’s never had to speak with a student about inappropriate cultural representations, “likely because I work in very culturally diverse schools and students do learn a lot of cross cultural skills. My conversations have been around toy and fake weapons and once or twice about inappropriate representations of women.” He’s also counselled students and parents around safety issues, like taking off masks before class and wearing costumes that allow free movement.
And back in Ontario, Francouer says some culturally-based costumes are actually welcome in the classroom—if it represents your own culture. “A culture is not a costume—a culture is part of who you are. It’s your roots, it’s your background…you’re proud of it, and you have the right to show it to everyone.” She adds that it’s about more than just Halloween. “We feel that it’s important that this respect is carried on, all year long.”
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