When autumn blows in, Halloween fun is close behind. When approached thoughtfully, Halloween can bring not just candy, but creativity, constructive-learning and community building. In order to ensure that holidays and observances are positive experiences for all, they also need to be inclusive and respectful. The following are guidelines and tips for teachers to address potential issues such as stereotypes, cultural appropriation and gendered costumes.
Discuss stereotypes with costume choices
Holidays which focus on “dress-up” can perpetuate stereotypes. It’s important to establish an understanding with the school community that Halloween can be creative, fun, and respectful. If students or adults wear clothing that portrays stereotypes or denigrates other cultures, be sure to address your concerns right away.
More importantly, be proactive by addressing issues of stereotyping before Halloween, using it as an educational opportunity to discuss stereotyping, discrimination or cultural appropriation. Many children and families don’t realize that their costume choices are potentially hurtful or offensive. For example, a child who is very interested in Native American stories or history may want to dress up like a Native American. This is an opportunity to discuss how Native American dress is not a costume, but an important part of their identity, unique to each different tribe with their own customs and ways of dress.
Help children understand that Halloween costumes are only fun or funny when they don’t hurt or make fun of other people or perpetuate stereotypes. Other examples of discussion topics might include:
- discussing why blackface is offensive and its racist history
- the problems with costumes which are stereotypical representations of ethnic groups (e.g., dressing like an “Italian” or “Mexican” relies on stereotypes and generalizes a whole group of people)
- the difference between dressing up as an occupation (e.g. police officer) and a cultural group (e.g., Native Americans). The former is emulating the dress of a profession, usually in an aspirational way, while the latter is appropriating someone’s identity as described above.
- why stereotypical depictions of people from lower incomes are hurtful and are based on assumptions about what it means to be poor (e.g., dressing like “hobos,” “bums” or “rednecks”)
Discuss gendered messages in costumes
Dress-up can provide students with an opportunity to express creativity and be imaginative. It’s an opportunity to “try-on” different personas and expand their horizons. Unfortunately, much of the marketing and messaging around Halloween costume options serve to narrow children’s perceptions of their horizons and reinforce restrictive social norms around gender and sexual orientation. “Girl costumes” predominantly focus on dresses and being pretty, such as princesses or fairies. Even superhero costumes have skirts, instead of the potentially more practical pants for crime fighting. Older girls quickly find that costumes targeted to them emphasize attractiveness and sexual appeal. And while “boy costumes” typically provide more options for professions (e.g., firefighters, police officers) at younger ages, they also place heavy emphasis on superheroes and action figures. As they get older, boy’s costume choices give the message that they should be scary and gruesome.
While there are certainly children who gravitate to the traditional gendered costumes--girls who love princesses or boys who are obsessed with the most recent action hero-- be careful not to reinforce that these are the only options available or appropriate. Engage youth in conversations about gender stereotypes and discuss messages that companies send through marketing and advertising. Encourage self-expression, while making sure that children who venture outside of gender norms for Halloween are respected and not teased. For example, before a Halloween event, you might say something like, “It’s really fun to dress up and pretend. At our school, there aren’t boy’s and girl’s costumes. Each child can choose what they like.” If children have questions about a costume choice (e.g. a boy who chooses a princess costume), you can remind them of the classroom expectations.
Take the opportunity to respect different beliefs
Not all students in your class may celebrate Halloween because of their religious or personal beliefs. Try to learn about students’ beliefs prior to introducing Halloween topics and provide students the opportunity to choose not to participate in ways that are not marginalizing. For these reasons, you also may choose not to engage in Halloween festivities at school and focus on fall events and decorations instead.
Include all children
Be aware of the socio-economic implications of celebrating holidays. Do not assume that every child has the financial resources to bring elaborate decorations, buy gifts or wear a store bought costume. Consider how you can structure holidays so that all students can participate in the classroom without the need for purchased resources.