Read this before choosing a Halloween costume

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I sat on the floor amongst a stack of photo albums, watching myself grow a little bit older each time I turned a page. A sucker for both old photographs and the feeling of nostalgia, this is one of my favorite things to do when I visit my mother’s house. I picked up a new album and watched myself head off to kindergarten for the first time. On the next page, I found myself smiling in an apple orchard on a school field trip. Once more, I turned to the following page.  This time, however, I found myself caught off guard by its contents. 

It was Halloween in 2005. At my elementary school, children would dress up and then we would have a parade around the school as teachers, staff, and parents alike cheered us on for our costumes. 

For the seven years I participated in my school’s tradition, I hadn’t once noticed what I did now. Scarily enough, I’m not sure how many of the teachers or parents failed to see this either. Walking behind a toothless, smiling, five year-old me was an array of children wearing costumes that screamed of insensitivity and ignorance. Teachers waved at a white student wearing a factory-made headdress from Spirit Halloween. Parents smiled and pointed cameras at a group of friends with holes cut out of their clothes, carrying a bindle with the word “hobo” written on it. Another white student wore a poncho and sombrero, entertaining a crowd with maracas. 

Nobody in these photos seemed to possess any sort of awareness as to what was so tragically wrong. 

Insensitive and problematic costumes have been an issue that spans across decades. Despite growing awareness and education about this problem, my school’s Halloween pictures from 16 years ago look like they could have been taken today. 

My elementary school was composed of students and teachers who were most often part of a dominant culture. Whether that was by race, religion, ability, or any other sort of identity, there were very few people who were part of a minority group. 

This is not too far off from Lawrence, a predominantly white institution. Although the university is growing in diversity, it still remains true that most students have identities that are part of the dominant culture in the United States. 

What makes the costume issue at my elementary school so frightening is how many opportunities the white teachers, parents, and faculty had to prevent students from parading around with racist, appropriative costumes. Administration made it a point to send home flyers to parents, informing them that costumes with gore and violence were not allowed. Yet never once was there any notice about insensitive identity-related costumes. Teachers saw white students dress up as racial stereotypes, yet didn’t pause to stop them from flaunting their costumes off to the school and degrading students of said race. Parents didn’t pull other parents aside to have that conversation either.   

While children are not at fault for their ignorance, they are at the age where prejudices solidify and intervention is crucial. When kids are allowed to walk out of the classroom door and display these stereotypes and mockeries to their peers, they don’t forget them. Early conversations can make or break unconscious prejudices that take a lifetime of work to unlearn. 

This is why it is so important that these conversations are happening at Lawrence this year. As the next generation of teachers, parents, and other sorts of leaders, it is essential that we do not watch idly as these sorts of issues arise on our own campus. 

I am especially speaking to students who are part of a privileged identity. It is not the job or responsibility of minorities to educate those in a dominant group about the prejudices they face. It is up to the dominant group to educate their fellows, as responsibility for prejudice should be taken by those in the oppressive position. 

This means having those conversations you might be nervous to have. It looks like stopping your fellow white roommate when they try to leave for a Halloween party in Blackface. It looks like filing a bias incident report for your fellow Wisconsin-born classmate for dressing as an ICE deportation officer.   

As for yourself, it is important to reflect on your costume before you put it together. Ask yourself the following: is this racist, sexist, otherwise prejudiced or portraying a stereotype of a group I am not a part of? Does this take things from another culture? Does it trivialize sensitive issues like trauma, mental illness,  or immigration?  

If you deem your costume appropriate, make sure you go about putting it together in the proper way. Be sure to not appropriate other races, cultures, or identities when putting together your costume. For example, if you are a white person dressing like Maui from Moana, be sure to do so without appropriating culturally important Polynesian tattoos and without changing your skin color. 

It takes just a quick internet search and some creativity to find ways to make Halloween inclusive for all. If you’re part of a dominant culture, it is your responsibility to put in the work to make Lawrence, and beyond, a space for everyone. 

Happy Halloween!