Every Halloween, the phrase "cultural appropriation" comes up in conversation — so, what is that? How do we explain it to children? And how can families make sure their Halloween costumes aren't distasteful?
Boiled down, cultural appropriation is when someone dresses up as a person from a group to which they don't belong, mimicking skin color, clothing, traditions or hair style.
Examples of cultural appropriation: kids' Halloween costumes that are described as “Mexican" (or "Cinco de Mayo”) that come with sombreros and ponchos, "Arab" with keffiyehs and robes or “Native American Princess" with feathered headdresses.
"These costumes often draw on racist or discriminatory stereotypes," Shannon Speed, the director of the American Indian Studies Center and associate professor in Gender Studies and Anthropology at UCLA, told TODAY Parents.
"'Native American' costumes, for example, depict people with an extraordinary traumatic history of genocidal violence and brutality," she said. Such costumes tend to lump the 574 federally recognized tribes — all with distinct languages, cultures and style of dress — into one group.
The "Sexy Indian" trend among teens and young adults ignores the prevalence of sexual violence toward Native Americans, who are assaulted at much higher rates when compared to all other races. (There are reasons beyond cultural appropriation why "sexy" anything is a bad costume choice for children, of course.)
Cultural appropriation also depends on dominance and power differentials, pointed out Kenneth J. Varner, an associate professor of literacy education at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Red flags for cultural appropriation
- Does your child's costume represent a culture or race of people to which they don't belong?
- Does your child's costume play off stereotypes about a group of people?
- Does your child's costume celebrate or exploit characteristics of a group that aren't encouraged or accepted in daily life?
- Blackface = NO. Do not darken or color your skin or your kids' skin for a costume. Just don't do it.
"Race is only one element," he told TODAY Parents. "With prisoner costumes, consider the high disproportionality of people of color imprisoned in the U.S."
When parents recognize power imbalances, they can explain to children why some Halloween costumes are offensive, and help them choose another one. Dressing up like a less powerful member of society as a "fun" costume can be offensive.
One question Varner suggests you ask your child: “How do the power of stereotypes play into your costume?”
That may sounds a little heavy for a Halloween discussion, but Varner says kids as young as 5 are totally capable of having this conversation.
Other good conversation-starters, especially if a costume idea sounds a little like a cultural stereotype: "Where does that idea come from?" and "Can you describe what you'd wear?"
One solid rule: Blackface (using face paint or other costuming to darken one's skin) is never acceptable, under any conditions.
In 2016, Disney discontinued a Maui boys' costume inspired by the film "Moana." The brown outfit, intended to resemble a Polynesian person's skin, and decorated with tattoos, sparked complaints of blackface.
Tevita Kaili, a cultural anthropology professor at Brigham Young University-Hawaii, told USA TODAY in 2016 that the tattoos, which are common to Polynesian chiefs, were "removed from their cultural context by appearing on a Halloween costume."
The Maui costume had two strikes: Taking culturally significant symbols out of context and darkening the skin with a brown costume. Disney ended up pulling it.
"The team behind Moana has taken great care to respect the cultures of the Pacific Islands that inspired the film, and we regret that the Maui costume has offended some,” a Disney spokesperson said in a statement published by USA TODAY. “We sincerely apologize and are pulling the costume from our website and stores.”
Sometimes the rules are confusing to parents — and experts don't necessarily see eye-to-eye about which costumes are fair game.
For example if your child is begging for a Mirabel costume from "Encanto," is that cultural appropriation or are cartoon characters OK?
Speed asserts that characters are "open game" because individual characters won't necessarily represent an entire group of people. Varner disagrees: "If the idea behind the character is a cultural attribution — race, ethnicity, sexuality, class — then you are likely dealing with an appropriation issue."
For parents debating how their child's Halloween costume will be judged, follow Speed's advice.
"If you have an inkling that your kid's costume choice is offensive," she said, "choose another one."
It's good to be aware of these controversial themes:
- The elderly: Not only is ageism unkind, it can target people who are disabled, Bette Ann Moskowitz, the author of "Finishing Up: On Aging and Ageism," told TODAY.com.
- Drugs or alcohol: While (some) adults may giggle at a toddler dressed as a marijuana leaf on Halloween, the message isn't cool.
- Victims of genocide or war: In 2017, online retailers pulled a children's “WW2 Anne Frank Girls Costume” after the general public, including Jewish advocacy groups, protested. Five years later, the idea is still distasteful.
- Serial killers: People are curious about murderer Jeffrey Dahmer, following the release of Netflix's “Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story" which has led to Halloween costumes being sold (and banned) in his likeness.