Talking to Kids About Halloween Costumes and Their Impact on Others

October 23, 2019 by Stacey Joseph for ImpactEDI™
October 21, 2019  by Stacey Joseph for ImpactEDI™

As Halloween approaches, how many of us are talking to kids about the impact of their costume choices?

It never fails.  Each year, we hear of students and educators whose choice of Halloween costumes perpetuate stereotypes, make light of hate, and bolster oppressive systems. Last year it was the school teachers who dressed up as ‘Mexicans’ and a MAGA wall.  In 2017, it was the Bunnery cafe worker who dressed up in black face, then explained that she didn’t understand why the costume was offensive to some:  “It was a genuine costume, I thought it was a brilliant idea. Color is not something that exists in my life. I will not apologize for my costume, there was nothing wrong with my actions in the choice of my costume.”  The Owner of the cafe was then left to do the best she could at restoring the cafe’s reputation.

 In these cases, a simple conversation would likely have prevented a lot of harm. We hope you’ll take the time to talk with your students about their Halloween costume choices this year.  And if it applies, we hope that you’ll think carefully about your own.

Here are 3 tips to help guide the conversation:

Help Students Think About How Costumes Might Perpetuate Stereotypes or Historical/Cultural Inaccuracies

The easiest way to get into a flow of conversation about costumes that might possibly perpetuate stereotypes or historical/cultural inaccuracies is to ask the following questions.

  • “Does my costume attempt to represent or mock a culture that is not my own?”
  • “Does my costume perpetuate stereotypes, misinformation, or historical and cultural inaccuracies?”
  • “Does my costume packaging include the following words ‘traditional,’ ‘ethnic,’ ‘colonial,’ ‘cultural,’ ‘authentic’ or ‘tribal?’”
  • “Would I be embarrassed or ashamed if someone from the group I am portraying saw me wearing this?”
  • Is my costume making fun of human traits and culture?

During the conversations, allow students to identify the stereotypes they find in popular costume choices.

racist costumes

Hillary Duff and her BF dressed as ‘Pilgrim and Indian’ while Native Americans were being arrested for protesting the North Dakota Pipeline


Talk About the History Behind Stereotypes

When students understand the history behind stereotypes and the lingering stigma associated with them, they’ll have a better understanding of why they’re so hurtful.  Nearly every Halloween brings news of a student, educator, celebrity, or politician who just doesn’t get why blackface is a problem.  Teaching students about the history of blackface and minstrelsy in American can help them understand why white people painting, polishing, or otherwise altering the color of their skin is like knocking on the door of oppression and racism, and asking them to come out to play.

Talk About Intent and Impact

One of the most common justifications for inappropriate/hurtful costumes is that Halloween is a time of play, a time to release and celebrate the freedom to be something/someone other than what/who you are in real life.  As such, many argue that Halloween is not a time to practice “political correctness.”  Undeniably, there’s a difference between playfulness and irreverence.  Be sure to speak to students about the difference between the two, and provide them with helpful and relatable examples.  Allow students the time to process the information you’ve given them and set aside time to discuss what costumes they might have in mind.

Lastly, when thinking about intent and impact, suggest that students apply the rule of ‘Stop and Think.’ Below are questions that can help students assess the appropriateness of a prospective choice of costume.

1. What’s so funny? mum-black-up-e1571875892411.png

Is the costume intended for laughs? If so, how would you explain the joke to someone who didn’t get it? Could you?  And if so, could you do it without feeling embarrassed/uncomfortable or possibly embarrassing someone else or making someone else feel uncomfortable?

2. Is it hurtful?

Does the costume promote or build on stereotypes about a specific race, ethnicity,  culture, or other identity group? How would you respond if someone from that group asked you to explain why you chose your costume?

3. Does Intent Matter?

It’s always effective to ask the question: Is someone responsible for the outcome of their choices, regardless of their intent? Are there any examples you can think of when someone was held responsible for a negative outcome of a choice they made, despite the lack of intent?  Car accidents are always effective examples.  Ask students why do you think you’re responsible for the damage to someone else’s car even if you didn’t mean to hit them?  

Let’s be proactive so that this Halloween can be fun for EVERYONE!


*Featured Images from Gettyimages; Refinery29; and Trinity Mirror
ImpactEDI™ is a D&I Consulting Group that provides Diversity & Inclusion Trainings and Workshops, Cultural Competency Training, and additional D&I Support Resources for Schools and Businesses 


2 thoughts on “Talking to Kids About Halloween Costumes and Their Impact on Others

  1. I am going to talk to my children about their costume choice, I did not know the impact. This year my husband and I have decided to dress up also and it is probably a great time to set the best example.

    1. Please feel free to update us with pics!😀

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