Skip to main content

Julie Kinnaird | October 10, 2017

On the evening of October 31 the streets will be filled with jack-o-lanterns, ghosts and goblins, but also Pikachus, Elsas, doctors, astronauts, and more. Costumes that may be fun and games to some, can be hurtful or offensive to others.

Dressing in costumes that represent an entire culture can lead to generalizations and stereotyping. It can alienate and disrespect members of a community. Talking with students about the history of Halloween and how to best pick a costume by looking at them critically is important. Are the costumes they see on the media, in big box stores or in large Halloween-themed stores perpetuating stereotype or bias? Does the costume mock an individual or a religion? Just a quick search on one large retailer’s website produced dozens of choices for Mexican, Native American and geisha. Many of them portray these cultures in negative stereotypes.

Many college and school campuses administrators have taken steps to create inclusive environments for people of all diverse backgrounds. In 2011 Ohio State University STARS student group started the “We’re a Culture, Not a Costume” campaign featuring posters that try to prevent cultures from being translated into stereotypical costumes during Halloween.

Last year, the University of Massachusetts created a Simple Costume Racism Evaluation and Assessment Meter (or SCREAM) for students to use when deciding on what to wear for Halloween. The SCREAM meter asks costume-related questions, the answers to which take one to various points on a “threat meter” that ranges from green (low) to red (severe).

Yale University challenged students in 2015 to answer these questions when deciding what costume to wear:
Wearing a funny costume? Is the humor based on “making fun” of real people, human traits or cultures?
Wearing a historical costume? If this costume is meant to be historical, does it further misinformation or historical and cultural inaccuracies?
Wearing a ‘cultural’ costume? Does this costume reduce cultural differences to jokes or stereotypes?
Wearing a ‘religious’ costume? Does this costume mock or belittle someone’s deeply held faith tradition?

These simple, yet important questions, can help any student dressing up for Halloween festivities to avoid wearing a costume that might offend another.

At the K-12 level there is an ongoing debate of whether or not schools should host Halloween festivities. One the one side, many parents view Halloween and Halloween school parties as a rite of passage. Others argue that festivities cut into instruction or argue that the costumes being worn are offensive or too scary. It should also be noted that many families don’t celebrate Halloween. To overcome these challenges, many elementary schools have adopted the practice of “book character day” where students may choose to dress up as a character from a favorite book. This practice encourages appropriate costumes while promoting literacy. Others schools are choosing to host fall celebrations, Day of the Dead celebrations, or harvest festivals.

Educator Resources
Lesson Plan: What do Halloween costumes say? Grades K-5
Lesson Plan: Tolerance: Comparing Cultural Holidays Grades 3-4
Lesson Plan: Compare and Contrast Day of the Dead and Halloween Grades 4-5
Day of the Dead Classroom Resources
Video: Cultural Appropriation: Why Your Pocahontas Costume Isn’t Okay: Aaliyah Jihad at TEDxYouth@AnnArbor