You stroll through the aisles of the pop-up Halloween shop trying to find that perfectly themed attire, and stumble across a Native American costume. Enticed by the fake suede leather, the colorful patterns, the fun dangling beads and the feather headdress, you decide to make the purchase.
There’s no doubt in your mind that dressing up as a Native American will be a fun, festive Halloween costume idea. Not too scary, gory or silly, and the outfit is sure to be well-received.
Or is it?
A recently released Buzzfeed video tells us otherwise. The clip features Native American adults reacting to and trying on various styles of these Halloween costumes, all the while feeling deeply offended.
One participant, Shane Whittaker, was bothered by how the costumes featured weapons, such as spears, which further hinders Native American development by allowing society to continue to see them as “savages.” Another participant, Sheila Chalakee was particularly bothered by the inaccuracy of the costumes and said her own, decorated with plastic beads and misplaced feathers, made her feel like somebody was making fun of her.
“There actually feels like there’s something pretty disrespectful about wearing a people group as a costume,” Whittaker says in the video.
Costumes that attempt to portray entire groups of people have the potential to offend, regardless of the intention of the individual wearing them. Our society has seen a range of offensive Halloween costumes, from wearing blackface, to dressing up as a Mexican person with sombreros and adhesive mustaches or donning kimonos and hair buns as Japanese geishas.
Many argue that Halloween is a time to dress something you’re not. But cultural misappropriations like these create umbrella stereotypes. The result is an infringement on the well-being of the people associated with that culture.
Turning culture into costumes undermines the actual importance to the group you are choosing to exploit for your benefit. By taking away the symbolic meaning behind the look, we lose sight of the cultural significance — not just to members of the particular group, but to society as a whole. In the aforementioned Buzzfeed video, Jenny Marlowe discussed how the beaded patterns on the dresses each mean something different, and Chalakee said the dangling beads on the dresses are actually blessed with a prayer before being put onto the dress.
Even dressing as a famous Disney character like Mulan or Pocahontas can offend. Not only does Disney misrepresent to a certain extent, but wearing traditional dress and pretending to be in a culture we are not a part of, we risk offending somebody part of that group.
Just think — if someone from another country were to dress up “as an American,” complete with fake beer belly, hamburger and faux firearm in hand, would you stand by, unaffected?
This misappropriation of culture even happens outsides of Halloween. For example, wearing a Native American headdress is less of a celebration of the piece’s beauty, and more of an inappropriate gesture of disregarding cultural relevance. In another Buzzfeed video, Native Americans give their thoughts on people who are not Native American wearing the traditional headdresses to music festivals, such as Coachella. All of the members were offended and said the people wearing the headdresses didn’t understand the symbolic meaning behind them.
A Huffington Post article reported a dispute between Kylie Jenner and Amandla Stenberg, an African American actress best known for her role as Rue in the Hunger Games film. When Jenner posted a photo of her with cornrows on Instagram, Stenberg commented on it, saying Jenner was not only misappropriating culture but also failing to use her position of power to speak out on African American issues, such as police brutality.
Although people aren’t always aware that they are misappropriating culture, it’s important to practice caution to ensure we’re eliciting change, not just asking for apologies. We need to put ourselves in the shoes of others and think if they would be offended. If we have to question it, it’s most likely offensive.
Some people may argue that dressing in these costumes isn’t offensive, as it’s meant in jest or done in the Halloween spirit. However, a lack of perspective renders a costume anything but a joke to the people it targets and negatively impacts.
Although Halloween is the time to be something we’re not, it’s easy to do without offending somebody. Out of all of the costume choices available to us, there’s always a better option than one that perpetuates stereotypes.