A group of kids dressed up for halloween.


Your Kids’ Costumes Matter Too

Oct 12, 2017

As Halloween approaches, many dads and moms (ahem, this mom, too) are scrambling to find a costume that looks good, is relatively easy to find/put together, and — most importantly — your kids will be stoked about.

I’m also thinking about whether my kids’ costumes are appropriating another culture or disrespecting people — and trying to pass these values of consideration and respect onto my children in a way that kids under 10 years old will understand.

It’s common knowledge that donning blackface or brownface is totally inappropriate. ... After that, though, costume rules can be very murky.

But the topic of costumes and appropriation is a heated one in Canadian conversation, with many parents asserting their rights for their kids to dress however they want. These debates are exacerbated by costume shops that sell afros and headdresses as “costumes,” and by mega companies like Disney whose beloved film characters often become any given year’s costume of choice.

So, here: seven things I urge you to consider when costume shopping.

1. What is cultural appropriation?

When we talk about cultural appropriation, it might be helpful to think of it as cultural “misappropriation.” It’s when we pick and choose elements of a certain culture to suit our needs — in this case, wearing them as a costume. This is especially problematic when white people borrow from people of colour.

The reason why it doesn’t work both ways — why it’s not problematic for my biracial son to don a Donald Trump wig, for example — is because white people are not discriminated against for our hair, our clothes and our skin.

Recommended Reading: Why White Parents Need to Talk to Their Kids About Racism

2. If you have to ask, “What’s the big deal? It’s just a costume!” then recognize that you probably benefit from a level of privilege.

“Privilege” is not a pejorative. Let me say it again: Privilege, white privilege and male privilege are NOT pejoratives. Almost everyone benefits from some level of privilege, and it doesn’t make you a bad person for having it. But the vast majority of white people in this country simply don’t know what it’s like to be marginalized based on our appearance or our beliefs. We don’t know what it’s like to have our culture discriminated against one minute, and then worn as a costume the next.

What may not feel like a big deal to white people ("it’s just a costume!") is triggering or painful for people of colour.

3. Empathy is a beautiful thing to teach our kids.

In my opinion, empathy is the most important emotion of all emotions. Put yourself in your fellow Canadians’ shoes. There are Indigenous communities in this country that have gone without clean drinking water for years. Is it any wonder that they are dismayed seeing their culture misappropriated for the purpose of fun on one night a year, when it’s ignored by those same people the remaining 364?

If you truly want to honour the culture of Indigenous people, roll your sleeves up politically, become an advocate and an ally and put away the costume headdress.

4. Being sensitive and politically correct are still good things.

Donald Trump-style politics have — of late — labelled political correctness and sensitivity scourges of society. But until we live in a post-racial utopia, I’ll take political correctness and sensitivity every time.

That doesn’t mean we shut down the conversation or that we’re averse to different ideas or political opinions. And that doesn’t mean you’re a bad person for really wanting your child to have the Halloween of his or her dreams. But humility and the ability to learn from our mistakes and admit that we are wrong are wonderful things to model to our kids. Because, hopefully, as a society, we’re teaching our children to be better than we are.

Recommended Reading: 5 Easy No-Sew Halloween Costumes 

5. ALWAYS defer to the perspective of people of colour.

Having three biracial sons (I’m white and my husband is black) does not make me an expert on this topic. And no matter how woke you think you are, if you are a white person, you aren’t either.

If you aren’t sure about a costume, Google it. These issues have been well documented and discussed at length by people of colour all over the internet. No one person speaks for their entire culture and opinions within a culture vary — sometimes within a wide spectrum. But in this situation, their insight matters more than yours, and that’s OK. 

6. You’re not off the hook if you’re dressing up as the “character” and not the “culture.”

Before your kid dons the costume of his or her favourite character, do a little research. Not all characters are created equally.

Was that character imagined with respect to that particular culture in mind? Is the character respectful and representative? Or, is the character a caricature, or worse — but so often the case — tacky and sexualized?

I truly believe that most of us don’t feel that our good time should come at the expense of someone else’s.

Disney’s Aladdin and Pocahontas, for example, were not conceived in consultation with Arab and Native American people the way Disney’s Moana was with Polynesian people. In the latter case, Disney employed Polynesian writers on the film and cast Polynesian voice actors. And while it’s an important distinction to make, that doesn’t mean that everyone can dress up as Moana characters without thinking it through — Pacific Islanders have pointed out that tattoos are deeply significant and meaningful to Polynesian people, for example, and any would-be Mauis should consider that.

7. When in doubt, just don’t.

It’s common knowledge that donning blackface or brownface is totally inappropriate. And most people know that afros and headdresses are offensive. After that, though, costume rules can be very murky.

But I still believe that most Canadians don’t want to disrespect anyone. I truly believe that most of us don’t feel that our good time should come at the expense of someone else’s.

So, if you’re not sure about a costume, explain your feelings to your child and move on. Their classrooms and friend groups are — in big cities and small towns — more diverse than ever. You’ll be surprised at how progressive and thoughtful your kid is. They don’t want to be “that guy” either.

Article Author Julia Lipscombe
Julia Lipscombe

Read more from Julia here.

Julia Lipscombe is an Edmonton-based freelance journalist and former staffer at FLARE magazine, NOW magazine and the Edmonton Journal. Julia is an arts and lifestyle specialist, and these days mostly writes about parenting, music and weddings. Alongside her husband, Jesse Lipscombe, she co-founded and runs the anti-discrimination campaign, #MakeItAwkward, which encourages people to speak up and speak out against racism, homophobia and hate of all kinds. Julia and Jesse are parents to three beautiful boys: Chile, Tripp and Indiana. In her ever-diminishing spare time, Julia likes to swim, bike, run, drink wine, and listen to lots of albums as a member of the Polaris Music Prize jury. Find her on Instagram and Twitter.