October 31, 2013 by multiracialsky
There is a significant difference in Halloween costumes that have a racial component, and I want to spend a minute teasing out that difference. A recent heated discussion has taken place online about THIS photo (scroll down to Oct. 24). The reactions are pretty much on two different sides: (1)Take it down now–you are bordering on child abuse dressing up your children like this! and (B) What’s the big deal–everyone needs to relax–it’s Halloween! One prominent blogger and commentator felt it was important to note that these costumes are licensed Disney Princess costumes–that the girls pictured were dressing up as specific characters (Mulan, Pocahontas, Tiana, & her frog) and not just any old Asian or Native American person. Does this make a difference? As a White-appearing multiracial (Cherokee and White) mom to four multiracial kids ranging widely in appearance, I have strong feelings about racialized costumes.
- I hate the Native American ‘costumes’. All of them, including Pocahontas. The Disney Pocahontas movie is not in rotation at the Sky house (nor is Peter Pan, sadly enough–the song ‘What Makes the Red Man Red?’ is forever burned into my mind, but not my children’s). I have spent years reinforcing with my kids that Native American people (including us) dress and live like everyone else in the US nowadays. We have attended pow-wows and neither ceremonial nor traditional dress is a Halloween costume. Don’t want to take my word for it? Other People Color people weigh in on racial costumes here and here and here, and also in the ‘We Are a Culture, Not a Costume’ campaign.
- Side note: What is up with the slutty girl costumes? Really!? If thigh-highs and peek-a-boo skirts are not part of your daughter’s elementary school wardrobe already, Halloween is not the time to add them. One of my son’s middle school acquaintances (a boy) is dressing up as a hooker for Halloween this year. Enough said.
- Non-mainstream American clothing does not a Halloween costume make. I was in a natural foods co-op on Halloween last year and noticed a White woman dressed in a full Indian sari complete with red bindi. I grew up well acquainted with the Hindi community in my city and my first thought was that we had a new devotee in our town (nope, just a ‘costume’). If you have a connection to a foreign culture (enough to understand the significance of the clothing you are wearing) and you choose to wear that outfit on a regular day, or for a special dress up occasion (wedding, cocktail party, holiday gathering)–that is an appropriate way to use that outfit. It is not a costume. Wearing ‘foreign’ clothing as a costume is a form of exotifying and othering. It is not honoring; it is appropriating.
- On the Disney princesses…For the moment I am setting aside all my other objections to them (gender, mothers & stepmothers, female villains, the way they’re drawn, the saving-guy thing). I just want to talk about race here. Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, Belle, Merida, Little Mermaid, Tinkerbell, and I would argue Tiana as well–these are non-racialized princess characters, i.e. changing their race would not change their story. Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Rapunzel, and the LIttle Mermaid are all classic stories told the world over. Any child of any race can dress as one of these princesses, and the character and the story remain the same.
- Snow White is obviously a bit more complicated…the ‘fairest’ of them all, i.e. the ‘lightest skinned’ of them all. Inherently problematic if you ask me. We watched it once at our house; the screeching singing is what my kids remember most clearly. My kids are more familiar with the Snow White as represented in the Shrek movies. We’ll just leave Snow White out of this discussion.
- Then there is are Pocahontas, Mulan, and Jasmine–all stories created by Disney. My children love the movie Mulan and Mulan 2. They’ve seen Aladdin a couple times, and Pocahontas never. I think Mulan is a strong, great female/princess character. However, I would not allow my children to dress up as Mulan in the Kimono style dress. (Maybe the warrior outfit? I haven’t had to cross that bridge because they haven’t asked.) We would never allow skin-color-changing make-up for any person/character/costume. Jasmine? Nope (see above and #2). Would I let my children dress up as Pocahontas–are you kidding me? They wouldn’t even ask. (See #1 and #3). You cannot separate these three princesses from their race. They have inherently racialized stories–and thus by allowing your child to dress like them, they are costuming themselves as a race. Is is not the same as a Black Cindrella or an Asian Tiana. A Disney Pocahontas costume is a child dressed up as an offensive stereotype of a Native American woman who was captured by White men, held hostage, married as a teen, brought to a foreign country, put on display, and who died abroad and homesick at age 22.
Why does Halloween nowadays squash the creativity in us all? It should do the opposite. Make your kids work for that candy! My children’s costumes over the last ten years include many animals, mythical characters, and other misc. Their costumes include a blue cat, Martin the Warrior mouse (from the Redwall books), orange bunny, pig, rhino, lion, blue duck, lizard, baby holstein cow, snow leopard, purple panda, pink penguin, pink & purple dragon, super hero snow leopard, snow leopard swordsman, purple witch, mermaid, pink fairy, purple unicorn, Mavis (vampire from Hotel Transylvania), Katniss (from Hunger Games), tomato, blueberry, baby, princess (generic), football player, hockey goalie, pink lady, one-percenter, and a perhaps my best creation ever–a rainbow cellphone.
No ninjas, no feather head-dresses, no kimonos, no halter-tops, no blood, no guns, no licensed cartoon characters (maybe Mavis and Katniss are licensed? On the plus side: my daughter made her own costumes, and Katniss is from the books since we haven’t seen the movies yet). It is a family night, about getting to know the neighbors better and eating yummy soup and hanging out with friends.
My kids still remember the horror of being one group behind an older kid in a Scream mask a few years ago. No matter which way we went, he always seemed to be coming down the porch steps right in front of us. My kids don’t WANT to scare their little friends (who are dressing as a Moomin and a chicken this year). They also don’t want to offend anyone. We all just want to have a good time.