Hard Pass

The Complete Guide To Avoiding Offensive Halloween Costumes

I.e., how not to be a culturally appropriative or insensitive wanker.

Originally Published: 
Ariela Basson/Scary Mommy; Getty Images, Shutterstock, Spirit Halloween
Spooky Mommy

Spooky season is here, which means your kid likely already has their Halloween costume. With an endless array of costume ideas out there, choosing one appropriate for the weather and your child's age, as well as culturally sensitive, can feel like a tall order.

On the surface, some costumes might seem harmless — say, a grass skirt and a shell necklace or a zombie celebrity. But your kid's creative idea might actually be less cute and more cringeworthy, especially if it's culturally appropriative.

So, how do you balance letting your kiddo express their creativity on Halloween while ensuring their costume is tasteful and not tacky? Two pros are here to help you navigate it all.

The Costume Conversation

Begin by chatting with your kid about their idea so you can get a sense of what they're hoping to dress as. Ideally, the costume conversation should happen before you get to the store or order something online. Then, when they give you their idea, you can assess whether it's appropriate or appropriative. (And yes, it's highly encouraged to Google it, even if you don't think the costume choice seems problematic.)

"Generally speaking, a costume should not adopt someone else's culture, skin color, customs, traditions, speech, or way of being," licensed psychologist Pauline Yeghnazar Peck, MA, MMFT, Ph.D., tells Scary Mommy.

"If a costume incorporates makeup that changes skin tone (i.e., blackface, brownface, redface, etc.), it's absolutely not OK," adds Nadine Fonseca, co-founder and CEO of Mighty Kind. "If it is a generic representation of a culture, you're likely just representing a stereotype and should continue your costume search. Incorporating significant sacred, spiritual, or religious elements should be off-limits, as should portrayals of physical differences for the sake of entertainment."

If the costume choice involves painting tribal markings or wearing traditional ethnic garb or religious garments, there's a good chance the costume is potentially offensive and inappropriate. Even if it's being sold at major retailers, that doesn't mean it's a safe bet. After all, stores routinely sell costumes mocking mental health, the pandemic, Indigenous and native cultures, and Holocaust victims, all of which you'll certainly want to avoid.

"Many generic costumes like 'Kimono Princess,' 'Fiesta Boy,' or 'Indian Chief' are making money off of representing cultures as caricatures and reinforcing harmful stereotypes," says Peck. "Cultures are not a monolith and shouldn't be reduced to caricatures for entertainment."

"Similar to being culturally inappropriate, blow-up suits for 'Fat Guy' costumes or 'Anna Rexia' are also offensive and diminish the importance of body inclusion and positivity," adds Fonseca. Dressing up as a deceased famous person or victim of a war or tragedy can also come off as callous and careless, while dressing as a different gender identity in a mocking way can be hurtful to marginalized individuals.

Talk the Talk

"A good guideline to follow is to think about whether it would feel appropriate if your child went trick-or-treating and knocked on the door of someone from that culture wearing their costume," says Peck. "Would it feel offensive because you, someone outside of that culture, is dressing up as if you are someone inside that culture?"

Age-appropriate conversations are vital in creating a teachable moment, says Peck. "It is important to be developmentally appropriate to where your child is. You might address a toddler by honoring their enthusiasm and giving them more acceptable choices, while you might engage your teenager in a deeper conversation around racism, sexism, etc. Strive for helping them understand, think through the ramifications and meanings of their behavior versus 'punishing' them."

Notes Fonseca, "It's a great chance to have a conversation about how stereotypes are often hurtful, showing respect for other cultures builds community and friendships, and how to make better choices once we have learned to do better. Be gentle, and don't place blame or shame on a child who simply didn't know better or likely didn't understand the gravity of their decision. Reinforce that impact is more important than intent, and more respectful options abound."

As Peck points out, dressing up as a Japanese ninja, Native American chief, or Rastafarian might not be the sign of respect you think it is: “It's not true respect. True respect would be recognizing that you are outside of the culture, learning about the culture from a distance, and engaging with that community in meaningful ways, such as attending a cultural event open to the public or reading about it. A Halloween costume is a cheap form of engagement, and it can be degrading. Someone's culture is not up for consumption."

Fonseca warns against "putting the uncomfortable vetting responsibility to 'approve' your child's costume on someone you happen to know from that culture unless you have already established a relationship discussing racial matters respectfully." It's no one else's job to make you feel better about your kid's costume choice.


"If your children want to dress as a specific character (say, Moana or Mulan), the best course of action would be to give them choices within their own racial/cultural category," says Peck. "If they are going to go as a character that does not match their own culture, avoid any kind of cultural additions, painting faces, or adopting hairstyles. They can wear the costume without fully trying to become the person."

Fonseca suggests purchasing the costume or accessories from a business or retailer owned by someone from that culture.

"This allows you to give back financially to the community you are respectfully representing and borrowing from. When that's not possible (like with a Disney character costume), spend the time finding out what specific culture or community that person or character is from. For example, even though I am Latina, if my child wanted to dress up as Maribel from Encanto, I would still sit down and learn together about her Colombian culture, because our family is Mexican and Guatemalan — completely distinct and different cultures even as fellow Latin countries. This is how we can massively tip the scales from appropriation to appreciation."

No matter what, "include your child in the conversation," she adds. "Talk through how not everything is for our consumption — we don't just have the right to take, own, use everything just because we want to. And lastly, make the hunt for an alternative costume fun and exciting."

"Aim to understand where they are coming from and present gentle prompts to help them think through the choices and consequences," suggests Peck. "You want to help develop anti-racist children, and these conversations within safe, loving connections make the development of such an identity possible."

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