Race, Ethnicity & CultureTraditions & Celebrations

Don’t Be Scary This Halloween

It’s that time of year again. Time to watch the leaves change, put on cozy sweaters and put pumpkin pie spice in everything. At our house, it’s also time to pick out or make Halloween costumes. It’s no secret to anyone who knows me. Halloween is my favorite holiday. I LOVE It. And it has been so fun introducing old and new Halloween traditions to my kids.

This year, we are dressing up as a family. Apparently, it is a law that all five-year-old girls have to dress as Elsa from Frozen this year, at least according to my daughter. I really wanted K to go as a scientist or famous woman role model, but I will settle for an independent ice queen who doesn’t need a man to rule her kingdom. My two-year-old is going as Sven (because he will make the most adorable reindeer on the planet), and I am going as either Anna or a snow flake. I was going to go as the scariest thing imaginable, but I couldn’t decide between a GMO-laden Pumpkin Spice Latte from Starbucks or a toxin-laden MMR vaccine created by Big Pharma, so I decided to go along with the family theme.

10696203_10204893376075855_1994307059858348133_nRecently I engaged in a debate on the internet (shocking, I know) about whether or not a Halloween costume idea for couples was offensive (see the picture on the right). I commented that it was majorly offensive on multiple levels. I really didn’t know where to start. The cultural appropriation, the reinforcement of racial stereotypes about Mexican men beating their wives, the idealization of domestic violence, it’s all bad. What’s worse? A. racism, B. cultural appropriation or C. reinforcing a culture of violence against women? Can I answer – D. All of the above?

I was asked whether or not I would still feel that way if the costumes were for children. Ummm, yes. Not only would it teach my children that dressing as a racial stereotype is appropriate, but it would also break another one of my rules – never give your kids weapons. Then, I was told that it was okay, because the woman was dressed as an inanimate object. Yes, folks. It’s okay, because the woman has been objectified. Ummm, no.

So, did I win the internet? I am sad to say that most of the people on the board thought that I, and anyone else who was offended, had no sense of humor and was too sensitive, looking to be offended, overly politically correct, and wrong. Anyone who agreed with me was shut down, including both an ethnically Mexican woman and a woman living in Mexico with her Mexican husband (who, by the way, found the costume offensive). It was a sad day in Whoville.

As a privileged white woman, it is not my job to ride in on my white horse and save Halloween for people of color. However, I hope I can share a few tips on how I am not going to be an asshole this Halloween and make my favorite day of the year less scary and even more awesome for everyone.

1. I am not going to appropriate anyone’s culture. What is cultural appropriation? I am so glad you asked.


Full disclosure: I had never heard the phrase “cultural appropriation” before last year. As a mom to young children, I had been fairly disconnected from any discourse not involving diapers or daycare. So, when I first read that it could be offensive for a white person to wear items of clothing or jewelry from another person’s culture, I was confused. I served in the Peace Corps in West Africa. As such, I own several items of clothing from West Africa, in traditional African fabrics and styles. I realize now that wearing those items to the grocery store because they look cool and ethnic is cultural appropriation. Whereas wearing a gifted batik pagne to dinner at my African friend’s house, while she wears the tie dye shirt I made her, is cultural exchange.

White people have been borrowing things they enjoy from other cultures for hundreds, if not thousands of years. It is wrong to do this without giving anything back through cultural exchange or being aware of the context of oppression. This is not an easy concept for people to grasp, especially when they’ve been brought up in a culture that easily appropriates or a racial or cultural group that has not been marginalized. For a really great analysis, see this post from Jarune Uwujaren at Everyday Feminism. She writes:

This isn’t a matter of telling people what to wear. It’s a matter of telling people that they don’t wear things in a vacuum and there are many social and historical implications to treating marginalized cultures like costumes.

In this context, many Halloween costumes from my childhood could be problematic. Indian princess or warrior = nope. Geisha or Ninja = nope. Harem girl = nope. Gypsy = nope. China doll = nope. Am I saying that we were being racist assholes when we wore those things? Maybe. Not really. More like – just because we didn’t know better or didn’t realize that we were appropriating another culture, doesn’t make this practice okay now that we know that it is offensive.

Where do we draw the line? Obviously “black face” make-up or middle eastern terrorist costumes are offensive. If you don’t think so, this is probably not the blog post for you. But what about positive depictions of beautiful cultures? Saris, batik fabric, moccasins? Still often problematic. Also, another good rule to follow – if something is trying to make another culture’s garb sexy or funny, it is probably racist. Some good guidelines are here. To err on the side of not being a creep – Is a costume a caricature of another race or culture? Just say no.

2. I will not engage in slut shaming. I don’t care what other women or teen girls choose to wear this Halloween. I really don’t. Their bodies, their choice. And, their costumes or lack there of are not an invitation for harassment or implied consent. Consent is sexy. Catcalls, harassment and rape are not sexy.

CaptureI don’t care if a woman is literally dressed as a whore, if I hear anyone calling a woman a whore this Halloween I will 1. tell them to knock it off and 2. tell them why I think that calling someone a participant in the world’s oldest profession should not be an insult. I do not, however, want to see any sexy Indians, Geishas, gypsies or Native girls. See point number 1.

Do I hate the fact that women are limited in their options for store-bought costumes that aren’t sexified? Sure. Do I hate that there’s a “sexy” version of almost every profession or super hero or historical figure? Yep. I even found a sexy scientist costume. Super disappointing. But that doesn’t mean I think it’s appropriate to shame others for the costumes they choose to wear or for wanting to express their sexuality. Self expression is super sexy.


I love the website Take Back Halloween for instructions on how you can create costumes honoring badass women from literature, history and mythology and background information on each of their stories. I would be lying if I said I didn’t hope that my daughter chooses Marie Curie or Rosalind Franklin for her costume next year. I think Halloween gives us an opportunity to teach our children about history, culture, nature and science, but ultimately, I let my kids choose their own costumes. Everything doesn’t have to be a lesson or discussion about the world. Some things can be just for fun.

3. I will let my kids trick or treat, have candy and will give out candy to trick or treaters. I am not going to be the house that gets egged for giving out pencils or raisins and how else am I going to stock up on Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. In all seriousness, while I generally don’t let my daughter have much candy on a daily or even weekly basis, and my soon to be two-year-old has never had candy, I believe that treats are not only okay, but an important part of a healthy lifestyle. We will probably only hit a few houses in our neighborhood, but trick or treating is fun, a great way to meet neighbors and an fun opportunity for my kids to get creative and express themselves.

Dear readers – be safe, have fun, but don’t be scary this Halloween!

Image credits: featured image, piñata, scientist, Amelia Earhart


Steph is a mom, stepmom, freelance writer, and advocate. When she's not busy writing, chasing kids around, cleaning up messes, and trying to change the world, Steph enjoys snuggling, making pies, politics, reading paranormal fiction, yoga, and fitness. A fully recovered natural parent, Steph now trusts science, evidence, and common sense to lead the way. She has been actively involved in the reproductive and women's rights movements for more than 20 years and is a passionate pro-choice feminist. Her writing can be found on Grounded Parents, Romper, The Cut, and other print and online publications

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  1. I *LOVE* Reese’s, but my three year old has a peanut allergy (like about 1% of kids these days), and it sucks when she gets nothing but candy she can’t eat for trick or treating. So maybe offer a couple of different kinds of candy? (I’m told hardly anyone is allergic to Smarties or, I would think, pixie sticks or Jolly Ranchers or other “pure sugar” candies) Or have some little toy spider rings or glow necklaces as an alternative?

    Just a selfish (well, on behalf of my kid) attempt to reduce the number of households out there offering only peanut-candies on Halloween…

  2. I have real trouble getting a handle on what is / isn’t cultural appropriation. (This is sincerely not trolling, I swear.)

    Some things I can see as clear cultural appropriation, like the whole R*dsk*ns horrorshow, when the fans wear redface and dress up in mock headresses and so on. That is obvious to me — taking sacred elements from someone else’s culture and misusing them. Or the locals Evangelicals around here who hold what they call “seders” around Easter, to celebrate Jesus and his sacrifice.

    But other things, like wearing dreadlocks if you aren’t African or of African descent; or wearing clothing that isn’t from your culture of origin; or making and eating food not from your culture; these examples seem less clear to me.

    If the food or clothing is sacred — as the American Indian headdresses are — then I get it.

    But if it’s not, as huaraches (for example) aren’t, or babkas and bagels aren’t — is that cultural appropriation?

    Again, not trolling here. Just confused.

    1. I get it. It IS hard. I think that I would rather err on the side of not offending someone from a marginalized culture or risking taking a part of someone’s culture and adopting it as a fashion trend. I don’t consider eating ethnic food to be appropriation, but if you were to open an Indian restaurant and claim ownership of their food tradition? Another story. As for other cultural garb, I think if something is worn as a way to honor another culture or to an event where it is expected, that is one thing. Wearing a sombrero to a Cinco de Mayo party? – not cool.

  3. Yes, I agree that cultural appropriation is complicated.
    My personal checks are
    -up or down?
    Do I stereotype a culture that used to or is currently getting the short end of the stick? In that case: forget about it. But while I might be annoyed when especially American assume that every German is Bavarian, I also don’t give much of a fuck. Seriously, I have one of the most prestigious citizenships on earth (despite starting and losing both WWs), you’re really not causing any harm, so put on your Lederhosen and Dirndl and have fun. Same goes for Vikings and cavemen: nobody is actually harmed, no negative stereotypes are being reinforced.

    -Where does the money go and how is this money made?
    Am I supporting artesans who can use the money to maintain their traditions and cultures or am i using my superior economic power to make people sell me things they’d rather not sell because they have a deeper cultural meaning?
    Or are even white folks making the profit?

    -am I exoticising people, superimposing my own carricatures over their actual cultures?
    That’s often the hardest one ’cause it’s difficult to know for us if what we’re getting is the real thing or a whitewashed variety especially fabricated for westerners? Does this thing romanticise an aspect of the culture I actually don’t know a lot about?

    -And last but very important: What do those people themselves say about that thing I want? Because I think it would be just as bad to say “no-no” to something when the actual people would really like to share, telling them that they can’t share this.

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