It’s Halloween: Becky wants to be Moana and Preston wants to be Black Panther
So it’s Halloween again and 5-year-old Becky wants to be Moana and 4-year-old Preston can’t wait to play Black Panther, and even my most “woke” friends can’t seem to wrap their minds around why this is an issue. Moms who pride themselves on being white allies can’t get behind the idea that they are being asked to deny their precious little angels the pure joy of celebrating Halloween as their favorite princess or superhero. After all, 5-year-old Peyton has no mal-intent and is not trying to offend anyone’s culture, so what’s the harm?
Here in lies the enormous fallacy at the core of this annual “misunderstanding”; the belief that your intention or in this case, your child’s intention is what determines whether an act is racially insensitive. The true barometer of whether something is racially inappropriate is the impact it has on the culture it involved. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg, so let’s break it down slowly.
First I want to address the ever so popular, “But, It’s just a costume!” This responses reminds me of the point Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie makes in her amazing TED talk, “The Danger of a Single Story”.
“The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story, and to start with, “secondly.” Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, and not with the arrival of the British, and you have and entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story.”
So when we start the story with, Black/ Native American / Pacific Islanders People not wanting little innocent Muffy to wear her favorite costume, without the context that white colonizers literally stripped said people of their traditional wear, music, language and culture, it tells the story of some irrational black and brown folks. So no, it’s not “just a costume”. It’s a tradition that was survived being passed down even in the face of dreadful persecution. It’s a culture and a history that was mocked in the forms of Minstrel Shows and black face as late as the 1960’s which lampooned black people as dim-witted, lazy, buffoonish. It’s not about a costume, it’s about power and the power to control the narrative of the people of color. First their native wear was savage and primitive, and you took it from them and forced them to adopt yours, now you have decided it’s cool and trendy and you want to wear it for entertainment. Do you see how that could be disconcerting?
New this year is the outrage that little Liam can’t be black Panther. After all, Black Panther is imaginary, it’s not a cultural costume. Except, Black Panther is literally a blissful reimagining of the beautiful, peaceful and advanced nation that COULD have been because it avoided the faith of colonization like all the other African nations. And here come white mommies insisting that they must colonize the Wakandan King’s costume for their sons as well….because, you know, irony is alive and well! Not today colonizer! (Said in my best Shuri voice)
Then there is the ever so popular, “But kids don’t see race.” And just like that, we are back in 1999 and I have to explain that colorblindness is not a positive quality to foster in a child. Color Blindness by definition sees everyone as the same; standard if you will. Unfortunately, in this country, that standard is inevitably a white one. It ignores the cultural differences of people of color and glosses right over the unjust history of oppression against these cultures and expects the same exact outcomes given vastly different experiences and opportunities. So while I encourage you to teach your children the truth; that race does not exist scientifically and that it’s a social construct, they must however be taught to recognize and HONOR the differences of various peoples. We must teach kids to spot the falsehoods and stereotypes that the media and world at large will try to feed them about these cultures. And if you think your kid is too young to understand or doesn’t need to be burdened with all that race talk, remember that the media, television, books will present them constantly with stereotypes about race in the most pervasive and subtle ways from a very young age. So you would be doing the next generation a huge favor if you counter acted those messages with some positive conversations and images ASAP. I wish I could express to you how disheartening it was to have my daughter at 5, try to convince me for over 30 minutes, that she was not “black”, but maybe “peach-ish” because despite the positive messages we flood her with at home, she had already learned that being black was not seen by this society as “a good thing.” Your kids are not too young to talk about race, I promise you!
“But black kids get to wear white costumes, not fair!” People, roll back the clock 50 years and black and brown kids would have to trick or treat naked if we lived by that rule. It’s the same reason why we can have all black colleges but not all white ones; there was a time black people could not attend any college they wanted so they had to create their own. There are still to this day only a handful of non-white princess or super heroes. Please remember that whiteness was thrust upon Native, Black and Pacific Islanders, they didn’t appropriate it out of choice. This situation is not interchangeable because of the power dynamic that overshadows the past between white people and just about any culture of color.
As grown adult, when you are told that you cannot dress your child in x or y costume, you smell a power play and your defenses automatically go up. No one puts my baby in the corner! I know that feeling, I’m a mama bear too. So instead, I am going to invite you instead to live with a big heart and teach your kids to do the same. I’m going to invite you to not only consider your kid’s happiness, but also the impact that their actions can have on a culture of people at large. What a great opportunity to teach your kids about minor sacrifices and compassion for a great good. Look, you can’t go back and change the history of this country. You can’t undo the harm your ancestors inflicted on a myriad of cultures and countries. But you can take tiny steps, however inconvenient to your Halloween merriment, to not rub salt in the wounds your ancestors inflicted.
And for those who still have that tiny voice in the back of their heads saying, “Well I asked one of my black friends, and she didn’t see a problem with it,”, I offer this; because your one Black friend gave you a pass, it doesn’t mean that others in the community don’t find it unsettling. After all, some black people are Kanye! ‘Nuff Said!
Look, this is not the biggest race issue we have in this country today, not by a long stretch. So you might want to say, “Hey, let’s focus on the big stuff.” But what taking a stand on this issue allows parents to do it to start raising not only white allies but white advocates. If little Amber and Connor start to learn at the age of 5 how to walk in this world with an awareness of their white privilege in the simplest of ways, and with a desire not to be careless with that privilege, imagine what a different world the next generation can create.