Student Voices: Racism and playing dress up | Work of Arts
Student Voices: Racism and playing dress up | Work of Arts

Student Voices: Racism and playing dress up

My culture is not a “costume”: Student blogger Kayla Lar-Son discusses the cultural misrepresentations and racism promoted by certain costumes

I look forward to Halloween each year. But every year, I inevitably encounter an individual who chooses to misrepresent another’s culture — intentionally or not — by wearing a culturally-insensitive costume, and this past Halloween was no different.

Every time I see a “Pocahottie,” a stoic Indian or an “Eskihoe” costume, I find myself in a fit of rage over the fact that traditional regalia is now being sexualized and turned into a comical outfit for individuals to parade around in.

Aboriginal people wear regalia in traditional ceremony and dance. Many of these pieces are earned by the wearer and given in ceremony by elders. The wearing of headdresses and regalia is a very controversial topic. If some concerts have banned them and magazine covers have been criticized for featuring individuals wearing headdresses on the cover, then why is it okay for stores to sell them year-after-year as costumes?

Some individuals feel they can justify wearing cultural items because they claim to be honouring that culture. When a piece of regalia is appropriated and used in a way that can be degrading to a culture, by someone who doesn’t understand the importance of that item, there is no honour in that. The wearing of culturally-insensitive costumes also promotes the normalization of racist and cultural stereotypes, because it’s just a “costume” according to some.

This is not my culture_pics (resized)
This is not my culture.

I was recently at a costume party where an individual came dressed as a sexy “Indian Princess,” and proceeded to drink hard liquor out of a brown paper bag. When I voiced my concern over the costume — that it misrepresented Aboriginal peoples — the rest of the individuals at the party sided with the sexy Indian Princess. They said that I needed to “lighten up” and began stating false statistics about Aboriginal stereotypes. However, it was not okay for this individual to dress in a costume that glorifies such wrongs as annihilation and cultural genocide.

Costumes that appropriate different cultures are offensive and hurtful to those who are part of that particular culture — this is not just relevant to Aboriginal cultures but to all cultures. In 2011, students at the University of Ohio created a poster campaign to promote awareness about the misrepresentations promoted by certain costumes. Many different cultures shown in the campaign included a Geisha, a Mexican Mariachi and an individual in black face, just to name a few. The 2011 campaign promoted awareness that such costumes are “not who I am and this is not okay.”

I understand that not everyone will realize the significance of their costume and the cultural importance it holds. However, we have to educate ourselves and understand that although some people might find a costume to be funny, it can also be very hurtful. I hope that the University of Alberta community can respect this message and act as allies with individuals from all ethnic backgrounds. Together we can celebrate positive festive events and not put individuals in uncomfortable and disrespectful situations based on cultural stereotypes.

This-is-my-culture 1 copy

This is my culture.

Here are some ways you can promote inclusiveness at Halloween and other costume events:

  1. Educate yourself on different cultures and their choices of traditional regalia;
  2. Speak out on the issue of cultural appropriation — for example, “I support cultures not costumes”;
  3. Be an advocate for inclusiveness;
  4. Don’t support the dissemination of stereotypes and help cultures keep their dignity.

Below are some links to articles that may provide further education on this issue:

Outrage over ‘Indian’ Halloween costumes (APTN National News)
University of Ohio “We’re a Culture Not a Costume” poster campaign

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About Kayla Lar-Son

Kayla Lar-Son

Kayla Lar-Son is Métis and a 3rd year Anthropology/Native Studies student in the Faculty of Arts. She grew up in Tofield, Alberta, and is currently an Executive on the Arts Aboriginal Student Council and works at the Métis Archival Project.