by Lisa Owen
Every year as October 31 approaches there is a lot of debate in my house as to what the perfect Halloween costumes will be for my girls. We receive a variety of catalogs and at ages 9 & 7, they are looking to express themselves with more adventure and fewer fairies and princesses. I welcome their expanded interests, and many costumes they ask about give me a great chance to develop their respect for all cultures.
It’s not all fun and games.
For years I’ve lamented the stereotyped, highly sexualized Halloween costumes for little girls. Now I add sensitivity to all cultures/ethnicities when they choose. A few days ago I posted the following exchange between me and my girls to Facebook:
My daughters and I were looking through one of our many catalogs for a Halloween costume when one of them asked could they be the “Native American Princess.”
Her: “Then can I be the Balinese Princess?”
Her: “Why not????? It’s soooo pretty!”
Me: “Yes, that costume is beautiful, but Native Americans (and people from Bali) are real people and their culture is real. They are not characters. That head piece has real meaning in Native American culture and for anyone else to wear it as a costume when it is sacred to them is disrespectful.”
Her Sister: “What about those costumes with the Mexican hat and poncho? Is that disrespectful, too?”
Me: “Yes. Mexicans are real people, not characters. How would you feel if someone painted themselves brown, wore an afro wig, and went out for Halloween as a Black person?”
Her sister: “I would be angry because I would feel like they were making fun of me.”
Her: “But what if they didn’t mean to hurt your feelings? What if they were just having fun?”
Her sister: “It’s not fun if it hurts someone else’s feelings.”
While I was pleased that the girls seemed to understand, the post started a very interesting Facebook discussion among adults regarding what constitutes good clean fun vs. cultural/ethnic insensitivity. Clearly Halloween is intended to be fun and I’m all for it, however, the last line that my 7 – year – old spoke is the most important thing to remember: “It’s not fun if it hurts someone else’s feelings.”
Isn’t a costume just a costume? Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t.
For instance, Native American Halloween costumes have been a thing for as long as I can remember. Indian princesses, warriors and chiefs have been a staple of Halloween parades everywhere. However, longevity doesn’t make it right. Like other ethnic groups who are also subject to stereotyping for Halloween hijinks, Native Americans are born into a specific culture with characteristics and customs distinct to their identity. Various tribal costumes and headdress have real meaning and are often considered sacred to members of the individual Native Nations. In the same way that taking off one’s shoes outside of a Japanese home is a sign of respect for Japanese culture, someone who’s not Native American should abstain from wearing something as meaningful as Native American garb – even an accurate replica – for their own pleasure and lighthearted fun.
This same principle pertains to all other ethnic groups, also.
On the other hand, and a very good example mentioned in the Facebook discussions, what about costumes and sometimes school mascots based on Greek or Roman history? For instance, our local high school mascot is the Spartans. The name Spartan is not only a reference to a person from the Greek city of Sparta, but it’s also a reference to one of the most feared armies in Greek history. Being a member of the Spartan army was a big deal, but not a birthright. And although the Spartan army stood at the center of a warrior society, all male Spartans did not automatically enter into the army. In other words, it was not inherent to their identity from birth – you could be Greek, born in Sparta, yet not be a member of the Spartan army.
There is a difference. One is intrinsically the person while the other is not.
What is the saying – Imitation is the best form of flattery? Does intent matter? No, not really. Actually, it’s how the recipient receives it that matters most. If the intent is just to look pretty and have fun then that can be done without appropriating someone else’s culture. There are plenty of fictional characters to choose from. If the intent is to honor a certain culture then start by doing your research. Assist your child in doing some homework in order to find out what certain customs and ceremonial clothing, music, food, etc. mean. In doing so, maybe you will find out why it’s so important not to cross that line when choosing a Halloween costume.
My girls have yet to make their final choices, but hopefully we can find something that’s equal parts cool (and by cool I mean this is Texas, so it may still be hot out when trick or treating), fun, festive and appropriate. Good luck to you and we wish you a safe and Happy Halloween!
Lisa Owen is a writer and blogger at My So Called Glamorous Life: The Adventures of a Domestic Engineer. A member of the 2015 cast of Listen To Your Mother – Austin, her work has been featured on Blogher.com, Project Underblog, Centering Down, The Mid and in the supplemental materials for The Princess Problem at RebeccaHains.com. An Illinois transplant to Houston, Texas, she is the wife to a Bible toting scientist and a mother/step-mother in a blended family with five children ages 7 to 24. She is a seeker of world peace, a recipe for a sinfully good chocolate cake and the perfect pair of red shoes.