Halloween has traditionally been a time when you can dress up as your wildest fantasy; you could be a magical fairy, an enchanted sorcerer or a valiant hero. Recently, however, Halloween costumes have become a tool of mockery and insensitivity toward minority groups.
By browsing online costume retailers or Halloween stores, you can quickly find costumes such as “Bollywood Beauty,” “Arabian Chieftain,” “Tequila Bandito,” “Sexy Pow Wow Indian,” “Glamazon Warrior,” and more.
I want to start with Native American costumes. This is a topic that has been widely debated from Halloween parties to football team mascots. The history of Native American culture is heavy pain and hardships, and now the people representative of the Europeans who were the cause of so much pain and suffering are abusing rich cultural and ritualistic images and practices of their lives by demeaning them down to polyester fabric with plastic beads and faux-feathers. This practice of selective adoption of another culture actually has a name; it’s called “cultural appropriation,” and the Native Americans, as well as Latin Americans and even the Irish have suffered from it by the hands of America.
We can see examples of cultural appropriation year-round. Cinco de Mayo, a relatively minor holiday in Mexico, according to history.com, is a celebration of the Mexican army’s victory over France in 1862; in the United States, on the other hand, it has become an excuse to wear a sombrero, eat tacos and drink margaritas.
Those generalizations about Mexican culture also apply to Halloween costumes. For example, there is a costume for sale on HalloweenCostumes.com named “Tequila Dude” that comes with a polyester serape shirt, a straw sombrero that says “Tequila” on the front, a belt that has two bottle holsters and two bandoliers that hold six shot glasses each. Mexico has a rich history of music and food, and yet we still choose to highlight, accentuate and exacerbate the fact that they make Tequila. On Saint Patrick’s Day it would be hard to go the whole day without someone decked out in green from head to toe, possibly with a big leprechaun hat or green hair, possibly drinking a pint of green beer, whereas the holiday started as a celebration of Saint Patrick running the “snakes” or pagans, out of Ireland and spreading Catholicism.
Many people continue this widespread cultural appropriation, especially around international holidays, but many of the people who are actually part of these ethnic groups continue to feel hurt and offended when they see their culture misrepresented. Boldly, the YouTube channel for Buzzfeed posted a video in 2015 titled “Native Americans Try On ‘Indian’ Halloween Costumes” and their reactions might stop you from buying that “Sexy Tribal Native” costume.
The subjects, four Native Americans, two men and two women, ranging in age, were each given a costume to try on and talk about.
They were given costumes such as “Chief Hottie-Body” and “Indian Brave” and asked to put them on. One of the subjects said, “Accuracy on a scale of one to 10 is negative 4,000.” Others had complaints about the accuracy of the costumes as well.
“When you see beads on an actual pow wow dress,” said another subject, “every bead pattern means something.” A third subject gave his opinion and said, “A costume like this keeps Native Americans in the past, as if we’re not real people today.”
The fourth subject spoke briefly about how the costume made her feel personally. “Because it’s so inaccurate, it almost feels like a joke,” she said, “like someone’s making fun of me and all of the things my people fought and died to hold on to.” Associate Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion at KSC Dottie Morris said, “We’re living with the legacy of Native Americans not being people,” similar to the third Native American subject from Boldly’s video. “Many costumes we wear are based on fiction,” continued Morris, giving examples such as superheros and characters from television shows; “it takes away from the sacredness of who they really are.”
The distinction between a fun, fictional costume and hurtful cultural appropriation lies in the sacredness or importance of the aspects portrayed in the costume and how those aspects have been abused throughout history. It may not seem particularly hurtful to chant and dance around in a tribal costume with face paint on until you learn that when the United States was formed, the religious practices of Native Americans were outlawed. Our government did not recognize them as citizens and so religious freedom, which was what prompted the colonization of America in the first place, did not apply to the native peoples.
Native American Netroots, an online forum dedicated to discussions about issues affecting Native Americans, outlined the religious suppression of Native Americans in one of his/ her articles.
It began in the late 1800s when dances and feasts were ordered to be discontinued and anyone caught practicing a traditional religious ceremony, dancing or advocating Native American beliefs would be imprisoned for 30 days. After that, the men were ordered to cut their hair, which many tribes grew long for ceremonial reasons, and they were no longer allowed to paint their faces. If they refused to cut their hair then they would be imprisoned and made to do hard labor until they agreed. Dressing up as an entire ethnic identity has many issues, not just for the people who feel hurt by them, but it also causes issues for the people who wear them because they may not realize they are spreading racist ideologies.
Not only are modern Native Americans insulted by the continued portrayal of them being “savages” or “barbaric” because of uninformed opinions, but other cultures as well are often misrepresented.
When it comes to dressing up for Halloween, “It’s fun to be something you’re not for a moment and then take it off,” said Morris.
It is important to remember that it may be someone’s identity and that, as Morris said, “Some people living those lives can’t take it off.”
Abbygail Vasas can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org