Trick or Treat? Thinking about the masks we put on our kids on Halloween

by ARP columnist, Jason Sperber
trick or treat!A recent post on Rice Daddies, the group blog by Asian American dads that I coordinate, incited a lively debate among commenters about whether racially or culturally based Halloween costumes were well-meaning or racist, or worth getting upset about at all.

On the one hand, we could throw up our hands and say, “C’mon, it’s just Halloween! Dressing up is supposed to be fun, that’s all!” On the other, we could look at this as a teachable moment for a lesson in critical media literacy. After all, today’s Halloween is as commercialized a holiday as any, if not moreso—where our parents might remember childhoods of handmade costumes and homemade treats, ask most elementary school kids today to describe what happens on October 31st, and they’ll talk about store-bought, mass-produced costumes (many based on branded characters) and nationally-marketed, commercial brands of candy.

What, then, are the messages and meanings embedded in these costumes, and do our children really want to broadcast or endorse these messages through their costume choices? Halloween can become an opportunity to engage our children in critical analysis and questioning of where stereotypical images come from and what they mean.

In a 2004 column on stereotypes at Halloween, Tolerance.org’s parenting columnist Dana Williams offered these questions to guide a family’s costume choosing:

•Is the humor based on “making fun” of real people, real human traits or cultures? For example: Though intended to be funny, costumes depicting “crazy,” strait-jacketed individuals can be demeaning, dehumanizing and humiliating to those struggling with a mental illness and their families. Such costumes can reinforce stereotypes and fears about persons with mental illness.
•Is the “fear factor” based on real forms of violence or grotesque depictions of human traits? “This scary stud can empty out a full house just by walking through the door,” touted the tag line for Fright Catalog’s Vato Loco mask of 2002. A bandana clad, tattooed, brown-skinned vinyl creation, Latino activists said the mask made light of gang violence, which takes a serious toll on families and neighborhoods across the country. This costume also sent the message that all Latinos are violent.
•If the costume is meant to be historical, does it further misinformation or historical and cultural inaccuracies? The “Indian” get-up prevails each year as culture-turned-costume. But did you know few Native Americans wore buckskin and headbands and even fewer wore them together? Did you know “war paint” and feathers carry religious meaning and were never worn by Native American children?
•If the costume is meant to be beautiful, are these characteristics drawn from commercial references, such as movie characters? Too often, Halloween beautiful means white, blond princess masks. What statement does your Halloween costume make about what constitutes beauty — and about who is beautiful and who isn’t?

Jason Sperber is a former stay-at-home-dad of a 2-year-old daughter (“The Pumpkin”) and the husband of a family physician (“la dra.”) living in California’s Central Valley. He is currently a writer/blogger/online community manager. A former high school social studies teacher, he has a background in ethnic studies and education for social justice. He writes the blog daddy in a strange land and coordinates Rice Daddies, the group blog by Asian American dads. He can be reached at daddyinastrangeland@mac.com.

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