explainer

'Can my kid dress up as Moana?' The dos and don'ts of Halloween in 2019.

It’s Halloween. A day rooted in ancient Celtic belief that October 31 is when the veil between the living and the dead is at its thinnest.

But along the way, the tradition of dressing in costume to ward off evil spirits has, erm, deviated somewhat. Rather than just being designed to spook and scare, Halloween outfits have become an expression of culture; from dressing up as Kim K, to making sure our pets aren’t left out of the festivities.

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But occasionally, expressing our culture can expose the more murky aspects of it. Racism. Privilege. Insensitivity. Take any costume involving blackface, for example.

Speaking to Mamamia‘s daily news podcast, The Quicky, Dr Mia Moody Ramirez, author of the book From Blackface to Black Twitter: Reflections on Black Humour, Race, Politics and Gender, delved into cultural appropriation; what it means, where it comes from, and why it ought to be avoided if you want to have Halloween fun that’s truly harmless.

DON’T: use blackface. Ever. Not even for ‘joke’.

It wasn’t that long ago that blackface seemed acceptable in Australian culture. It was a staple at costume parties, school plays, even on telly (sketches on The Footy Show and variety show Hey Hey It’s Saturday are among the most infamous).

But dressing up as a person of another ethnicity, particularly if that involves painting your skin or changing the texture of your hair, should never have been OK. It’s rooted in a deeply racist, oppressive tradition of 19th Century minstrel shows, in which white Americans would dress up and perform skits and songs mocking black people for ‘entertainment’.

“Many times, African-Americans were depicted in a less-than-favorable light,” Dr Moody Ramirez said. “They were usually stereotyped as being less-intelligent, lazy, animalistic. So that was why blackface received a negative connotation.”

DO: Think twice about wearing a cultural costume.

Celebrities have done it plenty of times. Chris Hemsworth dressed up in a Native American for a 2015 New Year’s Eve party. Heidi Klum, who’s famous for her incredible Halloween creations, missed the mark in 2008 when she transformed herself into the Hindu goddess of destruction Kali, complete with blue body paint and extra arms.

Both are examples of cultural appropriation. And Dr Moody Ramirez explained why that’s so problematic.

“One issue with black face, or with cultural appropriation, is the idea that [the person dressing up] is able to take off the costume and then they’re able to return to a more dominant culture, versus somebody who is a part of that culture,” she said. “They are not able to do that. They’re going to always be a part of that minority culture. They can’t take off their mask or take off their costume.”

As Dr Elizabeth Coleman from Monash University also previously explained to Mamamia, as well as being unable to understand another culture’s experience, the person may not be fully aware of its laws/customs around the use of certain clothing, symbols, and so on. For example, body paint or totems.

“In Australian Aboriginal cultures, symbols are handed down according to legal rights from generation to generation,” she said. “These are not collectively owned, but owned by very specific people within a clan or tribe.”

This form of appropriation is offensive as it disregards the laws and customs of indigenous people.

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Heidi Klum's Kali costume is an example of offensive cultural appropriation. Image: Getty.

Appropriation may also be ‘blasphemous’ or sacrilegious, she said, “such as when the image of a god or ancestor is taken and displayed or used inappropriately”.

“This offence is not necessarily different from other forms of religious offence, such as the way some Christians feel about depictions of Christ or the Virgin Mary in popular culture.”

So is it ever OK to dress up in a cultural costume? "It might be OK if you're dressing up to reflect someone who's a part of your own culture, because you know about that culture and the trials and tribulations that have been experienced by that culture," Dr Moody Ramirez said.

What if a child wants to dress up as a Disney character of a different culture, like Moana? After all, it's a costume that's widely available at retailers.

Dr Moody Ramirez concedes that the line is thinner in that case. But she still cautions against it.

"What I usually tell people is, 'If your child doesn't know the meaning of this particular culture and the ethnic attire that's under consideration for Halloween then it's probably not a good idea for them to wear it.' They know that they've seen Moana in a movie, and they like her character, but they don't necessarily know anything else about her culture," she said.

"She is a Polynesian princess and her character is based on real culture and history. But if your child may not know anything beyond that. And so it's probably not a good idea for them to dress up in that type of costume."

DO: ask yourself these two questions...

If you're not sure what counts as insensitive, Dr Moody Ramirez urges you to ask yourself the following:

1. "Does culture that you're interested in representing have a history of oppression? If you can answer 'yes' to that question, then I would say, no, you probably shouldn't dress up as a character that's part of that culture."

2. "If you knock on the door of someone of a culture that you're reflecting, would they be offended by what you're wearing? If you say, 'yes, somebody might be offended,' then you shouldn't wear the costume."

See, it's not that scary after all.

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