For every mother buying their kid a Halloween costume this year, the decision of which outfit to get just became a whole lot harder.
In just this past week, two controversial statements about “racist” Halloween costumes have overshadowed the upcoming holiday: the first, Sachi Feris’ article on raceconscious.org about why Anglo children should not wear Moana costumes and, second, the daily morning show, Fox & Friends, is now under attack for their Halloween display with a young black boy dressed as a watermelon.
For different reasons, both events have brought an interesting question: Can racism pervade a cultural holiday like Halloween, including the outfits that a kid wears?
My answer is both “yes” and “no”.
The Problem of Cultural Appropriation
Sachi Feris’ main argument against her fair-skinned daughter wearing a Moana costume for Halloween was that it would be about “cultural appropriation and the power/privilege carried by whiteness.”
Now, just so we can all be on the same page: cultural appropriation is defined as “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission.” This can include the unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, folklore, cuisine, religious symbols and more.
What Feris is thus arguing is that, when Anglo children wear Moana costumes, they are stealing a part of Polynesian culture without permission, and this act is insulting to real men and women from the Hawaiian Islands.
Is Feris right?
When we start dressing up as individuals from other cultures at Halloween, I think there is the possibility that it can become a reflection of our power over them as well as just plain dehumanizing. For example, USA Today wrote a story recently about a white person who got away with wearing dreadlocks on Halloween, while a black man wearing dreadlocks on a regular Monday was told “you can’t work here.” Instances like this can make minorities feel mocked and degraded.
I think a good rule of thumb is to first put ourselves in a minority’s shoes, and consider how they would feel if we dressed up as them for Halloween. Things like skeletons and witches, unicorns and princesses do not have this same sort of issue. But “when you start dressing up in something your neighbor wears every day – a sari, or a kimono, or a hijab – then maybe that starts to cross the line.”
The Merits of Cultural Appreciation
To get back to the question of Moana costumes, though, I do think there is a big difference between dressing like your ethnic neighbor and dressing up like a fictional Disney character.
The protagonists of Disney films are valorized heroes and heroines who brave danger and have adventures, and it’s no wonder that children seek to emulate them.
I have been especially grateful for Disney’s growing exploration of cultural representation over the decades, from Aladdin (1992) and Mulan (1998), The Princess and the Frog (2009) and Moana (2016), to recent TV shows such as Elena of Avalor (2016).
I do think that Disney’s Moana celebrates Polynesian culture, not least with the Rock and Auli’i Cravalho as voice actors for the main roles, and kids wearing Moana or Maui outfits for Halloween continues this celebration. This is not one of those examples of cultural appropriation.
In fact, I think it’s the exact opposite. When kids dress like their favorite Disney character, this is a kind of cultural appreciation. Girls want to be a little Hawaiian girl just like Moana, and likewise for young boys and Maui. This is an example of “good borrowing,” in which Polynesian culture is not stolen or reduced, but rather highlighted and even glorified.
As an East Indian woman myself, I’m still waiting for Disney to make a film about Indian folklore, and if I ever saw a little boy or girl dressed up as the hero/heroine of that film, I would be extremely honored.
Elsa v. Moana
Now, I do want to say a quick word on the debate between Elsa and Moana costumes because this is where I really do have a point of contention.
When Frozen (2013) came out, I saw hundreds of minority girls don white wigs and wear sparkly blue dresses to look exactly like Elsa. Where was the outcry back then of cross-cultural dressing then?
No one had a problem with non-Anglo kids dressing up like a white woman. But now that Anglo kids want to dress like a minority girl, people are digging in their heels?
That is hypocritical.
I respect Sachi Feris. However, I think that her recent article on Moana is off point.
At best, the prevention of her fair-skinned daughter from wearing the dress of a brown girl is misguided and part of a hyper-sensitivity to issues of race. At worst, it is a subliminal form of racism that seeks to control and determine the ways in which majority culture engages with minorities.
Also, her claim that Moana “is based on real history and a real group of people,” but Elsa is not is simply not true. I can tell you that Frozen is based on the fairy tale, “The Snow Queen,” by Hans Christian Anderson (you may know him as the author of “The Little Mermaid”), and this tale is representative of Danish people and culture. The two figures are more alike than Feris imagines.
Does this mean that Anglo kids in America with Danish roots should only be allowed to dress up as figures like Anna and Kristoff for Halloween? Or that minority girls who dress up like Elsa are appropriating Danish culture? No and no.
We live in a global society. If we truly want to raise culturally-sensitive kids, we should be encouraging more cross-cultural dressing of fictional characters. I would love to see more majority kids dress up like minority characters – from Moana and Maui to Princess Elena – and do so with the intent of respecting, honoring and celebrating these other people groups.