Monday, October 30, 2017

Costume Etiquette, Costume Considerations

Last week, our principal forwarded us this message from the Instructional Leaders for Aboriginal Education in our school board. (Credit to Christina Saunders and the other ILs.)

"Halloween is often an exciting time of year and also provides an opportunity to provide rich teaching and learning contexts that engage students in critical conversations that include cultural appropriation, stereotypes and caricature versus culture. This is supported by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action, action # 63 iii. Building student capacity for intercultural understanding, empathy, and mutual respect.

Racist costumes stereotype, misrepresent, disrespect and dehumanize Indigenous peoples." 

This was a great opportunity for some timely media literacy lessons. The #mycultureisnotacostume hashtag on Twitter elicited some great images as discussion points. However, I wanted the interaction to be more of a student realization than a teacher-led lecture. Thankfully, I had recently been reminded of a great resource thanks to my Media Literacy AQ course. "Haunted Media" is a guide for teachers of primary, junior, intermediate, and senior students for integrating media lessons into topics that lend themselves well to this time of year. I must be honest; I usually do not like using pre-written lessons. I've used the rather crass analogy of a dog urinating on a tree to explain how I need to make my mark on a lesson and "make it mine". Thankfully, this guide helped me by showing some excellent conversation starters that I could modify for my task. (I guess autonomy and agency are rather important to me as an educator.) I liked these questions because they were open-ended but still helpful for reaching the idea of appropriate and inappropriate costumes. I also like that these questions are not dependent on whether or not someone chooses to celebrate Halloween. The questions I used were:
  • Are costumes media?
  • Where might you see costumes?
  • Why do people wear costumes?
  • How might people feel when they wear costumes?
  • How might people feel when they see others wear costumes?
  • What questions can we ask ourselves before selecting a costume to wear, if we choose?
I introduced a few of the images from the original developers of the My Culture Is Not a Costume campaign (according to Know Your Meme, it was Ohio State University in 2011 -, including the one of the "Indian". I conducted this lesson with students from Grades 1-8 and it was very interesting to see the differences based on their ages. The youngest students had no clue what the feather headdress, coloured lines on faces, tomahawk and buckskin were supposed to represent. "Is that a clown?", many of them asked. When I explained that the person was supposedly dressed up as an "Indian", one made reference to their classroom teacher, who is of East Indian descent and from the country of India. All students, regardless of age or experience, however, could read the emotions of the faces of the individuals holding the offensive photographs and could understand that they were not happy. The older the students were, the more they understood how insulting the costume was because of the message the costume communicated about someone else's culture. (I promise to edit this post to add some of the comments the students made - I typed their responses as a method of assessment.)

The oldest students were able to branch out and generalize to other areas. Ms. Wadia, our talented and supportive Grade 7-8 teacher, was with me when her class experienced this lesson. She and I both commiserated over how difficult it was to find appropriate costumes for female teachers to wear if they chose to dress up for Halloween. The job of teacher is a media construction itself - our kindergarten students discovered this when we emailed Sylvie Webb a few years back to ask if a princess was an example of media and she explained why it was, and it applies to teachers too.
(She said that princesses [and teachers] "communicate a message
-through the clothes they wear
-the books they read
-what they talk about
-the toys they play with
-how they wear their hair
-the shoes they wear")
When teachers select costumes to wear for school, they are navigating many audiences and are communicating many messages. Not only should a teacher's costume not be offensive to a culture, race, or sexual minority, but it also has to be suitable to wear around children. So many women's costumes are variations of "Sexy [Something]" that finding a non-sexy outfit to purchase is challenging and that teachers may have to make their own or explore other options. We added another question to our discussion (and I'm paraphrasing here because I can't recall the exact words): "Why is there such a difference between male and female costumes that are supposed to depict the same thing?" There were a couple of interesting suggestions from the students. As often with these rich discussions, there wasn't enough time to sift through the ideas, but I hope that some seeds of critical thinking may have been planted.

So, what will I be for Halloween? I'm renowned for having two costumes - one for the morning and one for the afternoon. No spoilers here - you'll just have to wait and see!

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