DISCUSSION: Is Your Halloween Costume Racist?

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AUDIO: Is Your Halloween Costume Racist?(feature, Marketplace)

When teens hunt for a last-minute Halloween costume, it’s often hard to walk the line between cool and offensive. After all, there’s quite a bit of “offensive” out there. In this 2013 feature, Youth Radio’s Malachi Segers confronted one of the nation’s largest Halloween costume retailers about some of their more culturally questionable costume options.  He also talks to young people of color about their take on what costumes are OK and which are not.

Do Now

How do you know when a costume or outfit is racist? What are your personal guidelines for what’s okay and what is not? #DoNowCostume

How to Do Now

To respond to the Do Now, you can comment below or post your response on social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Vine, Flickr, Google +, etc. Just be sure to include @KQEDedspace and #DoNowCostume in your posts.

Go here for best practices for using Do Now, using Twitter for teaching, and using other digital tools.

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‘Tis that time of year again, when folks who celebrate Halloween get their costume craze on. But dressing up as something you’re not can be problematic, especially when it involves distinctive elements associated with a particular culture, race, or class.

For many of today’s teens, certain no-nos are pretty obvious — like darkening your skin color to play a person of a different race, or dressing as a generic racial stereotype. But in other cases, the distinction between cultural appropriation and appreciation becomes blurry. Is it okay for a non-latino person to dress up as famed Mexican painter and feminist icon Frida Kahlo? What does it mean for a black American to don an African tribal print or dashiki outside of its cultural context? Is using a Michael Jordan crying meme mask the same as dressing up in blackface? And what does it mean for people of color if costumes have to be racially specific?

“Oh, it gets tough,” says Ike Sriskandarajah, a producer featured in Youth Radio’s Halloween costume story. “If we have to be racially specific, like to constrain ourselves to our own heritage for Halloween, I don’t know what Sri Lankan historical figure I’m going to be.”

Do Next

Do Next takes the online conversation to the next level: these are suggestions for ways to go out into your community and investigate how the topic featured in this Do Now plays out in people’s lives. Use digital storytelling tools and social media to share your story and take action. Make sure to tag your creations with #DoNowCostume.

  • Ask your school if there are guidelines around costumes for students on Halloween. Create a poster or media campaign to spread awareness of the guidelines.  You can use a free online resource like Canva to help with your design.
  • It’s not easy to interview someone about a controversial topic. Listen to the raw version of Malachai’s interview with a major Halloween store and use Youth Radio’s interviewing lesson plan to gather thoughts from students and community leaders about costumes and culture.
  • Find the website of a costume or Halloween store like this one, and have the class vote whether each costume is potentially offensive or not. Based on the results, have students rank the costumes from most controversial to least controversial, and then discuss what trends they see.
  • In this Atlantic article on cultural appropriation vs. appreciation, the author begins by listing the appropriated foods, fashions and products she uses in her everyday life. Try the same thing by researching the global origins of your favorite dishes, brands and products. Compare your list with your friends and classmates and discuss how this knowledge affects your use of these products and your relationship to their cultural origins.


More Resources

ARTICLE:Wesleyan offers to tell students if their Halloween costumes are offensive (The College Fix) Wesleyan University has offered to help students determine if their costumes are offensive but some students question whether schools should be policing students’ choices.

ILLUSTRATION: Appropriation Versus Appreciation: An Illustrated Style Guide (Interrupt Mag) Still unclear on the difference between cultural appropriation vs. appreciation? This guide illustrates several questions you might ask yourself to help determine where you stand.

ARTICLE: The Dos and Don’ts of Cultural Appropriation (The Atlantic) In this article, the author argues that people use products with different cultural origins every day — and maybe that’s okay. “In the 21st century, cultural appropriation—like globalization—isn’t just inevitable; it’s potentially positive,” she says. “We have to stop guarding cultures and subcultures in efforts to preserve them. It’s naïve, paternalistic, and counterproductive. Plus, it’s just not how culture or creativity work.” But, she emphasizes, the line between cultural appropriation and appreciation must be tread carefully.

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