Some of the most popular Halloween costumes represent other cultures: tons of kids dress up every year as Native Americans or as "Geisha Girls." In fact, those kinds of costumes are so popular that at least one costume supplier puts them in their "classic costumes" category: along with "robot" and "clown," you can find "Spanish Dancer," "Sassy Samurai," and "Dream Catcher Cutie."
The question is, do those costumes celebrate another culture, or simply stereotype it?
A woman in Asheville, North Carolina says costumes like the "Cherokee Cutie"- which features a very short dress-are demeaning, and likens the costume to blackface. A couple years ago, students at Ohio University's Students Teaching About Racism (STARS) program came up with a powerful and thought-provoking campaign: "we're a culture, not a costume." Under a banner that reads, "this is not who I am, and this is not okay," a Japanese-American student holds a photo of a Geisha Girl costume. A Mexican-American student holds a photo of a stereotypical Mexican costume.
More recently, the website Jezebel ran a post of costumes for men, women and kids that it calls racist. To me, though, some of the costumes they showed are obviously horrible and some just…aren't. I mean, if the "Miss Butterfly" costume is inappropriate, does the same thing go for ninja costumes? Because that's about 80 percent of the market for boys right now.
For parents, the thing that's hard about this is that lots of kids are fascinated by other cultures, and that's a good thing. Kids love to learn about other countries and other cultures: their holidays, their food, their clothing, their beliefs.
Last year, one of my daughters, then age 8, said she wanted to be a Native American Princess for Halloween. I told her she could, but that I wasn't comfortable with a lot of the stereotypes about Native Americans. I had her pick a tribe to learn about, and said that if she could figure out what they wore, that I would do my best to make her a costume.
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My daughter chose to learn about the Lenni Lenape, which is the tribe that originally lived in our area of Pennsylvania. She read books about the Lenape tribes from her school library, and found websites that explained that the Lenape now live all over the United States and Canada, and that many different tribes claim the Lenape as part of their heritage. She researched what traditional Lenape clothing looked like and learned that they used beads and ribbon for decoration, but not feathers like the store-bought costumes showed.
I like to sew, so together we made her a costume as close as we could to the pictures she found. It wasn't a perfect replica; I'm not about to use deerskin to make a Halloween costume. I realize that not every mom has the time or the desire to sew up a well-researched traditional Native American outfit-what about their kids? Are all cultural costumes really so bad?
Consider the words of Noel Atlaha on the website Last Real Indians:
"Here is why you should care, whether you are Native or non-Native American. Dressing as someone else's culture has lasting impacts on everyone's psyche," writes Ms. Altaha, who is White Mountain Apache. "Due to European Colonization there has been a collective and continuous loss in Native communities. …So when you wear an 'Indian' or 'Savage' or 'Native American' costume you are basically stereotyping a culture, you are also making their culture a historical reference that sends a message to everyone: Native Americans no longer exist, only in history books and old western films. You are not recognizing the present day Native people who are professors, doctors, actors, and nurses who still identify with their Native culture and are successfully existing in the modern world.
"I do not want to make this all about a race issue because it more than that. This is about respecting oneself through becoming educated and it is about healing for a people who have and continue to suffer from the impacts of historical trauma."
I really do understand what Ms. Atlaha is saying. But I also think that Halloween can be an opportunity for parents to talk to their kids about all kinds of issues: you can talk about what's wrong with the Boys' Phat Pimp costume, for example, or why girls don't need to wear overly grown-up clothes. I used my daughter's Halloween costume to talk about the past and the present of Native Americans. By the time Halloween rolled around, she was telling everyone and anyone about the Walking Purchase, in which William Penn's sons bought/swindled/claimed more than a million acres of Pennsylvania land and forced the Lenape to evacuate.
So, is it ever okay for your kid to dress as another ethnicity for Halloween? I think it can be okay - if you're taking the teaching moment, not perpetuating a negative stereotype. But I also think it's an interesting question that's worth of debate. What are your thoughts?