Recognizing Holidays and Cultural Celebrations at School: Halloween

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This post was originally posted on West Wind’s Educational Equity Resources Portal blog.

In recent years, schools across the country have modified Halloween celebrations to better meet students needs — some have moved parades to after school, stopped the sharing of candy during school, replaced events with alternative celebrations, or cancelled Halloween celebrations. This blog provides considerations and key questions to support you to center race and ethnicity as you think about and plan for school-based Halloween celebrations and the use of costumes.

As you consider changes to any school celebration, remember that people are emotionally invested in traditions and cultural celebrations like Halloween. It may take years to implement a major change to the way your school celebrates. The key is to engage in open conversations where you can learn from your staff, community, students, and families. 

You may find that this year emotions are even more heightened as we navigate the Covid-19 pandemic. There may be greater need for community and more challenge to how to build it for students who are spending time in online classes. Students may already feel a sense of loss and have a heightened need to celebrate community and traditions. Students who do not celebrate Halloween may experience a greater sense of not belonging this year — at a time where they may be online or distanced, asking students to go to a separate location during a celebration or to step offline may make them feel left out and hurt. Consider what your staff, students, and families most need right now and how you can support meeting their needs. You may decide that this year is a time to plant a seed with a conversation and start thinking about next year or you may make discrete, impactful changes now and start planning for the future. 

Costumes 

How might costumes pose racial equity concerns for students, families, and staff? You might start by considering what racially and culturally offensive costumes you have seen in recent years or what costumes have raised others’ concerns. It is important to remember that guidelines you share and determine will support students and staff to think through their own costume choices and prepare to respond to others’ costumes. Some examples of issues that may arise include

  • costumes that reinforce stereotypes, 

  • costumes that are explicitly racist or racially and culturally offensive, 

  • and costumes that appropriate cultural dress from a culture outside of the wearer’s. 

Costumes that reinforce stereotypes

Some examples of costumes that reinforce stereotypes include “thug,” “gangster,” “savage,” and “farm worker.” These are costumes that use racial stereotypes to make a joke of or disparage another race or culture. 

 Many of the costumes we see each year may seem fine if we do not stop to think about them carefully. Merriam-Webster defines stereotype as “something conforming to a fixed or general pattern, especially: a standardized mental picture that is held in common by members of a group and that represents an oversimplified opinion, prejudiced attitude, or uncritical judgment.” It can be helpful to define and discuss stereotypes with your colleagues.  

What stereotypical costumes have you seen in the past at school? Work with your team to think through the costumes you have seen and ensure that you share an understanding of what concerns you and what you want to ensure you do not see at school.For elementary students, you might want to send a note home to parents that lays out what is inappropriate at school and why. High school students might get an email themselves, take part in an assembly, or engage in a discussion in a home room or study hall. Think about your community’s needs and how you can communicate clearly.   

Costumes that are explicitly racist or racially and culturally offensive

Some examples include blackface, representations of Indigenous Peoples, Asian Americans, African Americans, “illegal immigrants,” religious groups, “terrorists,” “savages”, and others. These costumes are explicitly racist and use tropes and stereotypes to make fun of and disparage members of marginalized groups. 

These costumes are usually easier for a team to agree on, but it is necessary to spend some time with colleagues determining what these are. For example, in most years, we learn about a student or teacher who comes to school in blackface. Sometimes they will offer that they are paying homage to a specific person or character; talk with your team about why this is not ok in your school. Take some time to share why your school does not allow these types of costumes. Lay out your goals around valuing every student and family, building community, creating inclusivity and belonging, and helping your staff and students connect their costumes and school-based celebration to nurturing the school community you are creating. 

 

Costumes that appropriate cultural dress from a culture outside of the wearer’s

Some examples of costumes that appropriate culture include the use of sombreros, head dresses, tribal cultural fabrics, and moccasins. These costumes sometimes also include using makeup to recreate the face paint of indigenous peoples from around the world; using symbols and costuming from Day of the Dead celebrations; costumes that use bindis, hijabs, head coverings, cornrows, and afros. The Cambridge Dictionary offers this definition of cultural appropriation: “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.” These costumes raise concerns because they take an important and meaningful piece of another culture and use it in a costume without requiring the wearer to have a full understanding of what it means to the culture and members of that culture. It attempts to reduce something important to a culture to costuming for a person outside of that culture.     

Students and teachers may create a costume because they are interested in another culture and want to explore it; ensure that you are communicating with them why it is important not to take pieces of another culture and use these as “dress up.” Give them some time to think about this; this change will not happen overnight. For example, there are many Disney costumes you can purchase easily that appropriate culture in harmful and problematic ways. 

 

Consider how you want to implement this; the power of conversations before and after Halloween can plant these seeds and start an important conversation that leads to change. It is important to understand that what one person sees as cultural appropriation may not feel the same way to another person. For example, two Latinx people may disagree on whether a costume constitutes cultural appropriation. The key is that if someone shares that something feels like cultural appropriation you, it is important to respect and honor that feeling. Take the timie to explore why it feels like a misuse or misrepresentation of their culture and take steps to repair the harm. 

 

Next Steps

Think about how you as a staff will respond when something comes up about a Halloween costume at school:

  • How will we respond if a student comes to school in an offensive costume? 
  • How will we respond if a student states that another student’s costume is offensive or constitutes cultural appropriation?
  • How will we respond if a student shares with us that a costume is offensive and we are not sure why?
  • How will we determine what follow up is necessary?

As you engage in thinking about Halloween, we offer some key questions to ask yourself and your school community:

  • What is the purpose of our Halloween celebrations? Building community? Traditions? Engaging parents and families? Having fun?
  • How might school Halloween celebrations meet these purposes? Or get in the way of our goals?
  • How do our families, students, and staff feel about our Halloween celebrations?
  • Have we experienced challenges related to race in the past?
  • What are the potential racial or cultural issues we may face?

We believe that it is important for you to spend time centering race in your plans for Halloween. But we also encourage you to take time to think about how school-based Halloween celebrations may be experienced by other groups. Issues you might decide to discuss include, costumes that mock poverty or mental illness, costumes that portray or make fun of gender and gender identity, and how students who have experienced violence or trauma might be impacted by celebrations. 

As you continue to think about Halloween and other school-based cultural and holiday celebrations, we encourage you to engage with some of the resources we have created and curated here for Portal members on Talking about Race and Halloween. We also invite you to two upcoming Portal webinars

  • October 15, 2020: Considerations for Recognizing and Learning about Holidays in School
  • November 2020: Deepening Belongingness in Schools: Heritage Months and Multicultural Celebrations – Honoring or Tokenism?

References

Anti-Defamation League. (n.d.). Halloween: When the goblins, ghosts, and stereotypes come out. Anti-Defamation League. Retrieved October 1, 2020, from https://www.adl.org/education/resources/tools-and-strategies/halloween-when-the-goblins-ghosts-and-stereotypes-come-out

Cultural appropriation. (n.d.). In Cambridge Dictionary.  Cambridge University Press. Retrieved October 1, 2020, from https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/cultural-appropriation

Gross, N. (October 24, 2019). School Halloween celebrations continue raising spectre of academic value. Education Dive. Retrieved October 1, 2020, from https://www.educationdive.com/news/school-halloween-celebrations-continue-raising-spectre-of-academic-value/565580/

Herrmann, E. (November 15, 2017). Considerations for cultural and holiday celebrations in schools. Multibriefs: Exclusive. Retrieved October 1, 2020, from https://exclusive.multibriefs.com/content/considerations-for-cultural-and-holiday-celebrations-in-schools/education

Stereotype. (n.d.). In Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Retrieved October 4, 2020, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/stereotype

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