Cultural Appropriation, A Perennial Issue On Halloween

Oct 29, 2019
Originally published on October 29, 2019 8:55 am

Halloween is around the corner and guess what that means? Someone will metaphorically step in it with an insensitive or straight up racist costume.

The shelves of most costume stores still stock the "Arab Sheikh" outfit complete with the sinister mustache. Or you can order the "Ride a Camel Adult Male Costume." There are the "Mexican" costumes: wide sombreros, ponchos, handlebar mustaches. There are the people who darken their skin to pose as a black or brown person, although many people now understand the degrading and dehumanizing history of blackface now. And every year, there is always the generic "Native American" costume of the woman or man wearing fringe, fake suede, feathers and braids.

"When it comes to Halloween in the Native community, it's like a big eye roll," said Henu Josephine Tarrant, a New York-based artist and performer of the Ho-Chunk, Hopi and Rappahannock tribes. "It becomes exhausting."

Over the years as other costumes are rightly deemed too offensive to wear because they dehumanize oppressed groups, the Native American costumes, Tarrant said, are always stocked.

"It goes deeper than what you're dressed like," she said. "When you really look at it and you really study these tropes and stereotypes and what they mean and how they affect us as Native people, you know they're all rooted in a historically violent past."

The costumes depict Indigenous people as a monolith frozen in time, she said.

"It really is a reflection of how we look to [non-Native Americans] and what we are to them," she said.

And the style is based on clothes worn during a violent time in the 19th century as white settlers moved west, displacing Indigenous people on the land.

"In real life during this time period, during all of these Dakota wars and these other wars and these removal acts and starvation and famine and tuberculosis, smallpox — I mean so many sicknesses and violence was attached to that time period — and as a reaction there were some Dakota and Lakota who didn't know what to do. This is a really destitute time in history. And so what they did was they held ghost feasts and ghost dances," Tarrant said.

The ghost dance shirt was worn for spiritual protection from violence. Tarrant said most Native American costumes in the shops seemed to be modeled off this style of shirt.

"We aren't seen as modern-day people at all. That's also what makes it really difficult for people to understand that what they're doing is offensive," Tarrant said. "Because for so long, it's really been, I guess, ingrained into Americana, and cowboys and Indians is a part of that."

Over the past few years, online campaigns #notyourcostume and #mycultureisnotyourcostume have helped spread awareness. Many college campuses run campaigns on cultural sensitivities during Halloween with best practices to avoid racist tropes and cultural appropriation.

Every year, teacher Jess Lifshitz sends a letter home to the parents of her fifth-graders in Northbrook, Ill., near Chicago.

"A couple of years ago I noticed that every Halloween, there were one or two kids who came in costume and for whatever reason the costume just made me uncomfortable and I worried it made others uncomfortable," she said, "because it portrayed a stereotyped image of a group of people or it was someone dressing in a way that almost seemed as if they were putting on the identity of another person as a costume."

So she got proactive. The letter asks parents and caretakers to help kids understand why dressing in a caricature of someone else's identity is hurtful.

"Costumes should not become opportunities to turn a person's identity into a stereotyped image," the letter said. "While students might choose to dress as a famous person or character whose identity is different than their own, please reinforce the importance of not darkening skin or using makeup to change a child's skin color to match the person who they are dressing up to be. Students are often unaware of the long history these traditions have of causing harm and need our help in understanding why it can be hurtful and problematic."

In class, they have lessons on identity throughout the year and all the parts of ourselves that go into identity.

"So having those conversations ahead of time allowed kids to see why somebody else's struggle shouldn't make up someone's Halloween costume," she said. "What's wonderful about children is once you help them see those things they don't ever want to create that situation ... and the kids are so eager to make the right choice, once you sort of show them the problems that exist."

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Choosing a Halloween costume is not easy, but there are plenty that are insensitive or just straight-up racist. So as the day of tricks and treats approaches, NPR's Leila Fadel examines the tropes and the hurtful stereotypes that inevitably surface on Halloween.

NADYA SAIDIE: Hi, Valerie (ph). This is Nadya at Adele's. I did get your message.

CHANG: Nadya Saidie has been selling costumes in Los Angeles at Adele's of Hollywood for...

SAIDIE: Forever - my mom's aunt started the business in 1945.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: And over the years, tastes have changed as people become more sensitive. But the shelves are still stocked with costumes like Mexican girl, Arab man. That one hits home for Saidie.

SAIDIE: You know, and I always get like, oh, why are they wearing this? You know, because I'm an Arab. You know, like, why are they wearing this? What's the reason for this?

FADEL: She's ethnically Lebanese.

SAIDIE: So I kind of have to let it go. You know, it's fine. They're just having fun kind of thing. But yeah, sometimes, it gets to me.

FADEL: She obviously struggles with whether the store should stock these costumes at all. But customers ask for them, she says. And she only sells to people who she thinks mean well. The thing is a lot of people cause offense unknowingly, says Mia Moody-Ramirez.

MIA MOODY-RAMIREZ: They wonder, what's the big deal? Why are people getting upset over this?

FADEL: She's the chair of Baylor University's Department of Journalism, Public Relations and New Media. She says people might think a costume is funny or beautiful. The big deal, though, is it's a dominant culture taking elements of a minority culture with disregard.

MOODY-RAMIREZ: So it's the idea of people wearing something without really knowing the history of whatever it is that they're wearing. Or also, if it's something that's from an oppressed group and people are benefiting financially from using that product or wearing that attire but they're not actually showing respect for that culture.

FADEL: So if you go online and search for a terrorist costume, on Amazon, you get Arab sheikh, men’s ride a camel adult costume. Look up Mexican, you get stereotypical sombreros, ponchos and handlebar mustaches. Native Americans - tomahawks, braids, buckskin.

HENU JOSEPHINE TARRANT: When it comes to Halloween in the Native community, it's like a big eye-roll, you know? It's hard for us to celebrate it.

FADEL: That's Henu Josephine Tarrant. She's a New York-based artist of the Ho-Chunk, Hopi and Rappahannock tribes.

TARRANT: When you really look at it and you really study these tropes and these stereotypes and what they mean and how they affect us as Native people, you know, they're all rooted in a historically violent past almost always.

FADEL: To people who say they're just having a bit of fun...

TARRANT: There's a lot of other ways to honor us. Repeatedly in this country, we've not been honored, you know?

FADEL: She says she understands how non-Native Americans find her culture beautiful.

TARRANT: But you need to find another way to support us, you know? We have products. We have jewelry. We have podcasts. We have theater.


SAIDIE: Thirty-two eighty-five is your total.

FADEL: Back at Adele's shop, Christopher Noxon buys his costume.

CHRISTOPHER NOXON: I'm going to try to style that reporter wig into an Elizabeth Warren bob.

FADEL: He looks at the outfit and thinks.

NOXON: It may be in bad taste to be a guy. I'm trying to figure out the politics of it, whether or not it's like drag.

FADEL: He doesn't want to offend anyone. He struggled with this before. About six years ago, he dressed up as...

NOXON: Korean hikers - these women who wear, like, face masks and long jackets and big hats.

FADEL: People who understood it thought it was funny, he says, but...

NOXON: But only later, I was like, that's kind of racist. Yeah (laughter).

FADEL: He understands now, he says, it might have been seen as mocking a minority culture. But he hopes that it's still OK to dress up as his favorite Democratic candidate.

Leila Fadel, NPR News, Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.