Why my daughter will never dress in a national costume for Halloween

by ARP Columnist, Karen Walrond

karen walrond, arp columnistSoon after moving to the United States in 1978 at the age of 11, I got my first real taste of American Halloween. Because I had attended an American school in my homeland of Trinidad, I knew what Halloween was; however, Trinidadians as a rule don’t celebrate Halloween with quite the same fervor as Americans: there is no trick-or-treating, and save for the occasional private party, very few children actually dress in costume for the day.

So, when two months into attending my new school I learned that we would be allowed to wear costumes to class, I came home quite excited. “I need a great costume,” I told my mother. “Well, how about a traditional Trinidadian costume?” she suggested. “We have time, I’ll make you one.”

This sounded like a good idea to me: so many of the school kids, intrigued by my accent, seemed interested in learning more about Trinidad. A Trinidadian costume would be a great conversation piece, I thought. “Yes, Mummy, that would be great,” I said. “Thank you!”

For the next two weeks, my mother sewed a beautiful costume, complete with full, bright-coloured twirly skirt and a fabulous matching head wrap, just like the beautiful bele dancers I remembered from home. On Halloween, my mother put lots of make up on my face – a treat, indeed – and I proudly entered my school, feeling like a queen.

As I walked in, I ran into a friend, dressed in her own costume. “Wow, that’s a pretty great witch costume,” I said admiringly. “Thanks,” she responded. She looked at me quizzically.

“Who are you supposed to be – Aunt Jemima?” she asked.

“What? No,” I said, confused. “It’s a traditional Trinidadian costume. Who’s Aunt Jemima?”
“You know, the woman on the pancake syrup.” She looked me up and down. “Hmm. Well, you look like Aunt Jemima to me.”

For the rest of the day, I fended off constant questions about who I was supposed to be, from students and teachers alike. Everyone guessed everything from Aunt Jemima to Kizzy, the slave girl who was one of the main characters from Alex Haley’s then-recent epic movie, Roots. By the time the day ended, I’d ripped the head wrap from my head, and scrubbed my face clean of any makeup. I couldn’t get home fast enough. And I could never fully articulate why I was so upset to my mother, who’d worked so hard to make my costume.

To this day, almost 30 years later, I still feel pangs of shame and humiliation when I think back to that day – and frankly, it’s for this reason I’ve never been particularly fond of Halloween. More importantly, however, it is the reason that I will never dress my daughter, Alex, in the national costume of any country for Halloween. For me, it’s not about offending anyone as much as it is about subjecting Alex to having to defend stereotypes associated with the costumes themselves. I want her to grow up view the cultures of her Trinidadian mother, English father, Mexican-American birthmother and Colombian birthfather with nothing but pride – therefore, it’s not a subject to be trotted out on Halloween, a day which, let’s face it, is all about parody and disguise. Further, in my opinion it would be far worse for Alex to dress as a member of any other race – one to which she had no real connection. After all, how could doing so be viewed as anything but a complete lack of understanding of that culture, or, at worst, a mockery? My goal as Alex’s parent is to raise her to respect all people – and in my world, “respect” doesn’t include making light of the race or identity of any one person…

…including herself.

Formerly an attorney, Karen Walrond is now a writer and photographer who has contribued to such parenting publications as Blogging Baby and AlphaMom. She is the author of Chookooloonks, which was named one of the Best Adoption Blogs on the internet by Adoptive Families Magazine, and was featured in the book Blogosphere: Best of Blogs. She currently resides with her husband and daughter in Trinidad & Tobago.

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