There is a Difference Between A Culture and A Character’s Culture


It’s been unseasonably warm this week, but all the other signs of autumn have been in full effect here in New England. The foliage is changing color, pumpkins and skeletons are everywhere, people are arguing online about what does and does not constitute cultural appropriation.

This year the controversy is over last year’s big Disney hit Moana, an excellent movie centered on Pacific Island culture that had Disney praised for their continued efforts to promote more ethnic diversity among their Princesses and main characters. It’s next big release will be Coco, a movie about a young boy named Miguel that is based around the Mexican holiday of The Day of The Dead. It looks pretty good.

It looks pretty good but if your son is white you need to think twice about buying that costume next year. If you have a little white girl that is a last minute decider don’t let her be Moana this year.

Apparently it’s OK for Disney to make millions of dollars on movies based on other cultures but for a small child to pretend to be a character of that culture when they are not is racist and culturally insensitive. There have been many white Disney Princesses over the years, we should be sticking to those. If this seems to be suggesting to our children that they are only allowed to like those that share their ethnicity, it’s our job to correct them and use it as a teaching moment about their privilege.

I found this news to be deeply troubling. Not because it would force us to change Halloween plans, but because of the Elena of Avalor backpack that my six year old, white, daughter brings to school every day. Elena is latina. She also has a name very similar to my daughter Alaina’s, making her a favorite. The backpack is probably OK but I may have to make her switch back to last year’s Frozen one until I am 100% sure.


Elena backpack


Fortunately our Halloween costume was decided upon a month ago, no doubt in her mind, no changing costumes from event to event this year. Its been all Mal, all the time. She has been so obsessed with the character, the daughter of Maleficent in Disney’s The Descendants and Descendants 2 made for television movies that we have to have some article of clothing, even it’s just socks or a hair tie, that is the color purple every day.  She now carries a “spell book” everywhere she goes and our biggest challenge has been not wearing out her costume before Halloween actually gets here.


mal for halloween


Her second choice would have been Thor, which I also assume would have been appropriate, an assault on the patriarchy as opposed to a statement on gender fluidity.

Or maybe it just would have been a little girl dressing up as a fictional character that she likes?

Cultural appropriation is real, and if it seems as if I’m mocking the problem, I’m not. My understanding, however, is that it’s an act of stereotyping someone’s culture, belittling it.  It can be a fine line, but I think a distinction needs to be made between dressing up as an ethnicity, as a cultural stereotype, and dressing up as a character of a different ethnicity.  A Dora the Explorer costume is much different than a “lost little Mexican girl” costume. Jasmine or Shimmer and Shine are OK, dressing your daughter up in a burqa is not.

Maybe I’m wrong. This post was inspired by somebody that felt I was, that felt I was “whitesplaining” and that I should use this opportunity to teach my white daughter that “not everybody, particularly those of color,  get to be whoever they want to be.”

Maybe I’m wrong, but I think there are other ways to teach that lesson. Instead I’ll choose to teach her that heroes and princesses come in many different colors and backgrounds. I’ll celebrate the fact that movies and television are recognizing that.  If we want to continue to promote that diversity, doesn’t segregation of costumes, telling our children who they can and cannot emulate based on their skin color counterproductive?


13 thoughts on “There is a Difference Between A Culture and A Character’s Culture”

  1. I absolutely agree with you! I haven’t had this issue come up personally for my boys but I have vaguely heard about this and it sickens me. It makes me mad because its as if we just took two giant steps backwards and making a major leap forward. We are finally making movies and writing stories with different heroes of all races and yet our children still can’t be free to be those characters even though they are of a different color. It is counterproductive yet those who oppose it don’t seem to get that. They seem hell bent on just turning everything into a social or political issue these days. Just let kids be who they want for Halloween and move on. It really isn’t that complicated. #anythinggoes

    1. I usually get accused of being too “political correct” and feel that I try pretty hard to see all sides of a story, but I just can’t understand this one

  2. Bravo! I’m from Hawai’i and while I’m not of Polynesian descent, I have many friends who are. They are as equally baffled over this mandate that white children not dress up as the Moana character. This is a wonderful role model for children of any ethnicity to look up to and one of the best ways children learn is through play. Hell, we have an entire dress up area in every daycare center in America!

    I think it’s important to make distinctions like you said – dressing up as a fictional character that is positively promoting a culture is not wrong. Dressing your kid up in a fake grass skirt and plastic flower lei is much more offensive – and yet every summer since I left the islands I’ve watched all my politically correct white friends do this at one barbecue or another. #AnythingGoes

    1. Thanks Heather, I appreciate hearing the opinions of your friends on this one. Makes me feel a bit more comfortable about my stance

  3. I haven’t heard anyone complaining about dressing up as a specific character. I would think it perfectly acceptable for a child to be dressed in a Dora the Explorer costume, but the generic sombrero with a bottle of tequila costume on the other hand…

  4. What I don’t understand is why we have to have a million different cultures out there – bring your culture into the U.S. and let it be a part of the U.S. culture!

    1. Diversity is what makes our county great. I can understand wanting to keep traditions that have been passed along that are specific to your ancestry and trying to hold onto a piece of what makes you unique

  5. Honestly, I think it’s pretty cool that you are encouraging your children to take interests in other cultures and races! You go dad!

    I don’t have kids yet, but if and when I do, I would love for them to find their culture just as important as the culture of others.

    1. we need to have respect for each other’s differences and also embrace them. That seems to have gotten lost a bit lately

  6. Personally I think the political correctness and what people can and can’t do/say has reached levels that are just ridiculous. There is a world of difference between being racist and having a child dress up as the Disney character they like. I really pity the people who can’t see this.
    Thanks for linking up to #AnythingGoes 🙂

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