Select Page

Who’s Under that Mask?

One time, I went as a ghost. I’m talking the laziest version of myself cut out two eye-holes from a bed sheet and flung it over my head.screen-shot-2016-10-24-at-4-21-11-pm

Another time, I went as a blue crayon — I dressed up in a blue sweater, blue sweatpants and put a cone-shaped blue construction paper hat on my head. 

But, when my mother was feeling particularly generous (and annoyed that I was making a Halloween costume request on October 30th), we went to the store and bought a costume. 

Back then, in the 1980s and early 1990s, everything was fair game. And, thanks to marketing and appealing to the nostalgia of adults, most of the costumes that were on the shelves when I was growing up are back on the racks in 2016 — My Little Pony; Power Rangers; superhero costumes; zombies.

I remember, in junior high school, my friend and I were looking for cool ways to dress up for costume day at school. I can’t remember what I wore, honestly, but I absolutely remember what my friend dressed as. She dressed as her favorite reggae singer, Ziggy Marley. She threw lots of gel in her hair and twisted it in lots of little coils; put on her brightest colored shirts and bottoms; and walked around with the CD cover of Ziggy Marley. 

Oh, and she painted her face brown. Not quite black face. But, as a White girl, it was clear what look she was going for. 

Back then, in my own schooling in the mid-1980s, I didn’t learn a whole lot about race and racism or cultural appropriation. Not because it didn’t exist, but because we just didn’t talk about it. But, no one told us about these issues. 

I am grateful every single day that I get to work in a community that embraces dialogues and conversations about race. As I’ve written before, the hallway just outside of my office is covered with artwork and observations from 9-year old students who are actively interrogating stereotypes. Students learn about stereotypes in school, and they are tasked with exploring ways in which stereotypes exist in the world around them. 

I have to believe that NONE of these students will even want to wear culturally offensive costumes.

But, it’s hard to escape.

I went to the party store this past week to pick up some items with my daughter. We managed to check off the things she needed: a tutu, some tights, glitter. But, as we made our way to the cashier, she stopped me. She pointed over to an entire aisle called “cultural costumes.” Cultural costumes. She muttered, “You might as well call that the ‘totally racist costume aisle.'” Gleaming packages of ponchos and mustaches; fake feathers and headdresses; and costumes with the word “sexy” like “Sexy Alaskan” and “Sexy Mexican” and “Sexy Indian.” 

As parents and adults, it’s important to take some time to think about what messages we would like for our children to know about cultures and costumes. Is Halloween — or any dress up holiday — a free pass to be offensive? 

Often adults ask me, “How do I know if my child’s costume (or my own) is culturally offensive?” And, I have two pretty easy questions you should consider:

  1. If you were to dress up in that costume and go to a community (not just “my best friend said it’s fine”) but an actual community of people who would wear that, would they think you were honoring them? So, if you were to dress up like this costume package Indian and go to an actual pow wow or to a tribal ceremony or to a gathering of Indigenous People, would they appreciate your look? 
  2. Is your costume an expression of having fun or making fun? Having fun — totally good. Making fun — probably not.

That’s it. It’s quite simple.

Now, some of you may be reading this and saying to yourself, “Who cares! I’m doing it anyway.” Well, I can’t stop you. But, for anyone who is interested in being curious, kind and respectful, these tips might help you solidify your choice or guide you towards something else.

But after Halloween is over, we’ll all still be left with wondering, “Who’s under that mask?”

Peace and Park, 

Dr. T