4 Things to Keep in Mind About Cultural Appropriation During Halloween

4 Things to Keep in Mind About Cultural Appropriation During Halloween

How to talk to kids about insensitive Halloween costumes

By Gabby Cushman


It’s now October, and Halloween season is upon us. Halloween is a fun holiday for kids, as they get to dress up and get free candy in the process! However, there is a history of children and adults alike dressing in culturally offensive costumes, whether they realize it or not. You can walk into most Halloween stores and find costumes based on stereotypes of different cultures. These stereotypes can even find their way into children’s costumes, especially with characters from popular media. 

It can be stressful as a parent to navigate your kids’ costume choices while also being mindful of what is offensive, harmful, or thoughtless as a costume. Here are some tips to keep in mind when going over costume ideas:

Talk to your little ones about the difference between cultural appropriation and appreciation

Halloween season provides an excellent opportunity to teach your child about cultural appropriation versus cultural appreciation. The two are defined as follows:

Cultural appropriation: the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.

Cultural appreciation: showing appreciation for another culture in an effort to broaden your understanding and connect with others across different communities.

An example of cultural appropriation would be wanting to wear a clothing or jewelry item that may have significance to a particular culture but simply wearing it as a “trendy” fashion statement. Cultural appreciation, however, would be researching the importance behind the item, whether it would be appropriate for you to wear it or not, and supporting a local business of that culture by purchasing the item from them instead of a fast fashion or major chain store.

Watch out for costumes with offensive stereotypes

Year after year, children of many different backgrounds dress up in costumes that depict a culture different from their own. Parents should be cautious when considering these costumes, though. Many costumes-in-a-bag will include offensive material and profit off of the host culture without giving back to it in any way. There are also an alarming amount of Halloween costumes that try to condense a whole culture into a single and often insensitive ensemble - think “hula girl,” “Native American,” or “sumo wrestler” costumes. If your child is not a part of the culture, avoid costumes that include a: culturally significant tattoo, sombrero, indigenous headdress, bindi, hijab, or other community symbol or stereotype. When in doubt, consider encouraging your little ones to choose costumes that aren’t focused on one specific community or culture if they are not a part of it.

Turn it into an antiracist teaching moment

We want to communicate to kids that it’s not enough to be “not racist” but that we must strive to be antiracist. Although your family may be having this conversation at home, your children’s peers could show up wearing an insensitive costume on Halloween. Consider asking your little ones some questions such as:

  • What would you say if your friend told you they were planning on wearing an offensive Halloween costume?
  • Would you feel comfortable explaining to your friend why a costume idea is an example of cultural appropriation?
  • How would you explain cultural appropriation and appreciation to someone?

Your children may not know exactly how to answer these questions at first, but starting this conversation now will encourage them to speak up about social issues in the future. Work through the exercise with them and give some examples of what you might say to peers in your life in the same situation.

When in doubt, make a DIY Halloween costume

As mentioned above, costumes-in-a-bag are notorious for perpetuating the appropriation of different cultures and simplifying a whole community into a costume. Even if you and your little ones avoid offensive costumes, you may not want to buy from a store that sells costumes like that. A great alternative is to create a costume yourself! DIY costumes encourage creativity and broaden the possibilities for your kids’ costume ideas. 

For example, instead of getting a generic bee costume, your child could go as a “spelling bee”- all you need is yellow and black striped clothing, some wings, a makeshift stinger, and printed-out letters. Even if your little ones want to go with a standard Halloween costume, making it at home together instead of buying a pre-made costume will provide you with a great bonding experience and an ensemble that stands out. 

Of course, making a costume at home isn’t realistic for some people, so if that’s not an option for you, help your child select a costume that they will be excited about without appropriating a culture. 

If you’re doubting a particular costume choice, listen to your gut feeling and suggest another one for your kids. Halloween should be a safe and enjoyable time for everyone. No family should have to see their culture minimized into a costume for someone outside of their community. That’s why we should talk to children about cultural appropriation and how it shows up during the Halloween season.

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