A Culture, Not a Costume

James Layman, Director, AWSL
Oct 05, 2021

A Culture Not a Costume Blog Header


The leaves are changing, and the temperatures are dropping as we officially enter fall. Pumpkin spice everything, scarves, and flannels are becoming the norm as we transition formally into October. 

October is full of many events, happenings, and holidays that are woven into our schools' fabric. Homecomings, spirit days, and Halloween festivities take shape and create a sense of camaraderie, connection, and even fun for students and the community. 

One tricky aspect of navigating dress-up days and even Halloween festivities: being aware, sensitive, and mindful of cultural appropriation. 

Cultural appropriation is "Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else's culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture's dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It's most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g., sacred objects." (From, Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, by Susan Scafidi).

The costume or dress-up day is often not intended to cause harm, exploit a culture, or create pain for other students or community members. The impact, however, can create turbulence, harm, and create division amongst cultures, people, and communities within your school. 

An example is Hawaiian Day. A popular dress-up day that many schools participate in. The intent is for students and staff to wear aloha-style shirts filled with color, foliage, and even a lei. But, again, the impact is that the culture and people of Hawaii are not a "brand"; thus, their culture is not a costume. Shifts can be made to rethink how this dress-up can be altered. From "Summer Day" to "Beach Day," there are creative ways to move away from cultural appropriation. 

As you consider your school's community and cultural context, what shifts can be made to ensure dress-up days become opportunities for fun and unity rather than opportunities for pain and harm? 

Questions to consider:

  • Does the costume portray a stereotype of a particular group of people?
  • How would I feel if my culture was being represented in this way?
  • Do people get discriminated against for the clothing or hairstyle I'm using as a costume?
  • Does the costume exploit or make fun of a race, culture, religion, disability, gender, sexuality, or other identities?
  • Have I done my research about the garment I'm wearing or the person I'm portraying?

As a school leader, navigating the discourse around these topics may feel complex. Some steps to consider: 

  1. Focus on the positive: Instead of focusing on what students can't do, focus on what they can. For example, could the dress for Halloween be wearing orange and black? 
  2. Clear is Kind: As Brené Brown has taught us, "Clear is kind." Be clear ahead of time on what is acceptable and what isn't. Clear and concise language regarding expectations is the way to go. 
  3. Favorites: Favorites week is a wonderful opportunity to bring people together and still engage students. Favorite hooded sweatshirt day. Favorite pair of shoes day. Favorite flannel shirt day. Favorite color day. These are ways to engage students and staff still but do so in a way that allows more to participate and stay away from appropriation. 

The main thing is to know the main thing and keep the main thing, the main thing. The main thing is, has been, and should always be creating an environment where each and every student feels safe, valued, and free of harm. Shifting and rethinking our dress-up days allows schools to stay on track focusing on the main thing. 


  • community
  • Creating a Culture
  • holidays
  • halloween
  • cultural competence
  • Diversity & Equity
  • diversity
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