Here in the TT office, we all have our favorite school-year traditions. Mix It Up at Lunch is a popular choice, of course, but some of us are suckers for graduation; others can’t get enough first-day-of-school photos. But as much as we look forward to certain times of year, we find ourselves bracing for others.
Every fall, around homecoming and Halloween, we hear reports of cultures worn as costumes and the hurt and anger that happen as a result. When we hear about costumes and spirit days gone wrong, we reach out to the schools involved, offering support along with recommendations for responding to hate and bias and rebuilding trust in their communities. We wish we didn’t have to do this every year, but we do.
It’s always easier to prevent these harmful events than to respond to them. This year, what steps are you taking in your classroom to ensure that your students take a moment to think about the costumes they choose and the messages those costumes send? Here are three options you can try today.
Help students analyze costumes to see how they reinforce stereotypes.
TT’s lesson What Do Halloween Costumes Say? is easily adaptable for students at any grade level. Analyzing advertisements for costumes, students identify the stereotypes they find in even popular costume choices. Recently, social studies teacher Gisel Saillant tried this lesson with her sixth-graders—and took it a step further. She concluded by having her students write letters to the costume store whose advertisements they had analyzed.
Letters from Saillant’s sixth-grade students
“In social studies class we were looking at your Halloween costumes and noticed some interesting things about your models. Most of them were white.”
“Where are the Asians? Where are the Mexicans? Where are the black kids? Nowhere to be found.”
“Some of the costumes are quite sexist. I mean, have you seen the women’s cowardly lion? Honestly, I don’t think that you need to have different boy and girl costumes.”
Teach the history behind stereotypes so students can understand why some costumes are so hurtful.
Every Halloween brings news of one white celebrity—or educator—or another who doesn’t understand why blackface is a problem. Teaching your students about the history of blackface and minstrelsy in the United States can help them understand how and why white people altering the color of their skin or the texture of their hair taps into a history of oppression and racism.
Talk about intent and impact.
One common justification for hurtful costumes is that Halloween is a time to be “politically incorrect.” But there’s a difference between being silly or irreverent (or even rude) and perpetuating hateful stereotypes. Talk directly about this difference and give your students time to discuss prospective costumes in class.
Here are a few questions they can try asking, adapted from our article “Stop and Think.”
1. What’s the joke?
Is the costume intending to be funny? If so, how would you explain the joke to a child who didn’t get it? Could you?
2. Who is hurt?
Does the costume build on stereotypes about a specific culture, race, ethnicity or other identity group? How would you respond if someone from that identity group asked you to explain why you chose your costume? (On her blog Native Appropriations, Adrienne Keene explains how she approaches people dressed as American Indians at Halloween parties.)
3. How much does intent matter?
When is someone held responsible for the outcome of their choices, regardless of their intent? If you’re in a car accident, why are you responsible for the damage to someone else’s car even if you didn’t mean to hit them?
With the help of these techniques, we hope this time of year can be fun for every student.