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Halloween and Lessons Learned

Halloween has become one of the best opportunities for gaining intercultural competence. But it has often included a steep learning curve, especially if you grew up – as I did – when conversations about misappropriation were not common.

As a child, it was not uncommon to see other kids dressed up in all manner of costumes that referenced other cultures: Indian warriors and princesses, Romani fortunetellers, and some version of other countries’ dress: kimonos, sombreros, etc.

Today, we know that to make someone’s culture into a Halloween costume is considered offensive and belittling. But remembering the joy and pride children felt in dressing up – never intentionally mocking — it may seem a bit confusing. Wasn’t imitation a form of flattery?

I am reminded of a story in one of my favorite books, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty White. In the book, the main character is a little Irish-American girl living in Brooklyn around 1912. She occasionally takes a penny to go down to a local store, where an old Jewish man sells his pickles. She asks for a pickle, unknowingly using a now anachronistic anti-semitic slur. “Francie meant no harm. She didn’t know what the word meant really. It was a term applied to something alien, yet beloved.”

This little excerpt gets at the concept of Impact vs. Intent. Like Francie, when we were children, we probably had no bad intent. In fact, we probably had a lot of admiration that went with our Halloween costume decisions.

But we were reducing a people down to a stereotype and taking something that might hold significant honor in one community (such as a war bonnet) and using it in a shallow way that dishonored the tradition. The intent might have been innocent, but the impact was detrimental.

Now, we talk about things like cultural appropriation and make different choices. Those who want society to remain fixed, never changing and progressing, decry the changing mores, calling people “woke,” (as if awakening to expanded knowledge is a bad thing.)

I am grateful to be part of a religion that holds as one of our key values “continuous revelation.” We know that there are always new insights coming, new wisdom to be gained.  To be able to say, “Well! I know more today than I did yesterday!” is a statement of both humility and pride.

Happy Halloween!