I don’t speak for all Latinos, nor do I speak for the entirety of the PoC community worldwide. This is a statement that I think needs to be understood when getting into “social media debates” surrounding cultural appropriation and costumes, and this is a statement that I am making before I get started.
There is a debate that happens every year around Halloween and getting tagged in these debates because I am “the brown friend” is getting old. The most recent debate started over an article entitled “Why You Shouldn’t Dress Your Kids Up As Moana This Halloween” and it blew up my newsfeed. So, I felt like instead of addressing each and every post that people tagged me in, that I would instead write up a small response the best way I know how.
First and foremost, I want to say that I think it’s fine if kids want to wear costumes of characters whom they don’t share the same skin tone with. I think seeing kids of color dressed as white characters in pop culture is adorable and white kids dressing up as Moana can be just as adorable. The biggest problem is when parents try to darken or lighten the skin in order to make the costume “look better”. Changing skin tone is never ok and will never be okay. Black face, brown face, yellow face, etc have been used to demean and disrespect other cultures for years and those wounds have not healed, so don’t do it.
It’s not just painting skin that can be problematic, but doing anything that can be seen as highlighting the race of a character is also problematic. Things like hairstyle, clothing, or even symbolic tattoos can be seen as mockery towards another culture. Last fall, there was a PR nightmare down at Brigham Young University when their student-ran comedy troupe “Divine Comedy” decided to do a Moana parody. The parody itself was meant to be a mash up of the problematic LDS film Johnny Lingo with Moana and apparently it was supposed to be funny. But when they released the poster for the event, the Polynesian characters were being played by white actors in what could be deemed as brown face. The actor portraying Maui was a white male wearing a brown shirt, and the worst wig known to costuming
If you’re thinking to yourself, “I want to honor those other cultures by having my family dress as those amazing characters.” Great! Fantastic! Wonderful! Honor them. Help your children learn more about the cultures you are wanting them to honor. If they want to be Moana or Maui, then sit them down and read the history of Maui and learn why the Moana story can be so important to the Polynesian community. The same goes for wanting to portray characters of any culture. It’s not on the PoC community to try and teach people why something is offensive, it is on the people wanting to honor these cultures to educate themselves.
Now that I’ve touched on costumes, let me talk about the subject I get tagged in most frequently online, Sugar Skulls and Dia de los Muertos. As a family we have barely started celebrating this holiday, but growing up, I remember my grandparents teaching me why the holiday is important as well as telling me stories of their families and growing up in Mexico. While Sugar Skulls have nothing to do with Halloween, I personally have never taken issue with people who’ve painted sugar skulls on their faces for Halloween. However, I do know quite a few people who celebrate the holiday and do take issue, so because I am still learning about the ceremony and ritual behind Dia de los Muertos, I defer to their feelings on this issue.
The point I am trying to make is that if you are going to dress as characters from other cultures, or send your kids dressed as those characters, do it with respect and understanding. Also, realize that your choice will be seen as problematic in the eyes of some, and those people have every right to be upset, so don’t just tell them “it’s just a costume, relax!!” Be willing to ask thoughtful questions, listen and learn. To those who might get upset, like I said earlier, it’s not our jobs to teach, but we must be willing.