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Cultural Appropriation and Halloween: What to Consider

Updated: Oct 27, 2022

What narrative will you perpetuate this Halloween? Here are some things to keep in mind when choosing this year's costume.

Written by Trelasa Baratta, Curriculum Developer

I went to a costume party this weekend, and a woman walked in with blackface dressed as Tina Turner. I guess it was technically brownface since she didn't go full black, but nevertheless, it’s 2022 and we all thought this was a terrible thing of the past. Coming into work Monday morning, I found myself particularly reflective. How is it possible that an incredibly kind woman, who wouldn't intentionally hurt a soul, could come to a party thinking it’s okay to paint her skin a different color as an integral part of her costume? My first thought was, well, she likes Tina Turner, obviously. And then I thought, this seems to be a common argument for the appropriation of people’s cultures - that they’re paying tribute to this person or group of people out of respect for them. I get that, it sounds logical enough. Here’s the thing though… It's offensive. Plain and simple. At this point I thought this had been widely accepted, but I guess I was wrong.

With Halloween approaching, I wanted to use my Native lens to share with you a few important considerations. Native communities experience much higher rates of suicide, especially among youth, in part due to the impacts that cultural appropriations can have, such as:

  • Perpetuating the stereotype that we no longer exist

  • Ignoring the spiritual relationship we have to regalia

  • Erasing contemporary Native identity from public consciousness, causing further inequities between communities

Although these aren’t easy topics to cover, especially with children, please reference the following points in your conversations with others. In order to begin to combat the negative impacts listed above, we must be willing to have uncomfortable conversations and build empathy together, children and adults alike.

1) The colonial history of the United States is NOT something to be proud of, and it continues to hurt Native people.

The founding of this country is predicated on violence against Indigenous and Black communities. We have to keep this ugly truth in the back of our minds when considering what or who we choose to represent in costume. We need to ask ourselves, what are we REALLY representing when we choose to represent something that glorifies the colonial past? What one person may think is an innocent tribute, another may feel insult and humiliation. Take the Gold Rush, for example. Whilst schools have always celebrated the Gold Rush, for California Indians this was a period of genocide. In fact, most miners at the time were felons, rapists, murderers and thieves, coming to California to strike it rich, running from one pitiful life to the next (PBS, A White Man's View). With them they brought their ignorance and hatred, and took it out on the Native peoples. Keeping this in mind, perhaps we discourage kids from dressing up like miners this Halloween.

2) There’s a difference between celebrating other cultures and appropriating them.

Cultural appropriation is typically done without the permission of the owners of that culture, even more so when they've expressly stated over and over that their culture is not a costume (PBS, "What is Cultural Appropriation?"). For instance, say you go to a powwow and there is Native jewelry being sold. You purchase a beautiful pair of earrings that obviously have Native flair because, well, they’re designed by a Native artist. If this person didn’t want you wearing their jewelry, they wouldn’t sell it to you. There is a vast difference between this and dressing up like Pocahontas for Halloween. The reason for that is this: Pocahontas was a real Indigenous person with an actual history. It's been well-established that Disney’s romanticized depiction of her story is far from accurate (American Indian, Pocahontas' First Marriage: The Powhatan Side of the Story). As a Native woman I can say first hand, young Native people internalize this portrayal and it’s demoralizing.

3) Yes, we want to be seen. No, we do not want to be your token.

There's a long-time controversy in the world of sports and team mascots. Firstly, while there is something to be said about the efforts that were put into forcing the hand of the Washington NFL team to change their mascot, I'm not convinced it was done for the right reasons in the end (Sports Illustrated). The transition to the Washington Commanders is honestly not much better and speaks to how the franchise continues to struggle to understand our experiences and the problematic nature of militarized oppression.

That being said, our Native identities are not something to impersonate for sport. We all have complex histories, and we all need to learn what respectful behavior looks like, and how sometimes our choices can be incredibly disrespectful. If you can spare a moment, listen to this Napa High School alumnus’ story about his experiences as a Napa High “Indian.”

“This learning environment… caused many students, teachers, faculty, administration to internalize these notions that we were not here, that they were going to live out our legacy for us, that they were going to create our imagery for us, and they were going to teach our history however they saw fit.”

-Dr. Makha Blu Wapka, Abolishing "Indian" Mascots and Reclaiming Native Identity, Suscol Intertribal Council

So when considering this year's Halloween costume...

  • Think about the history behind it.

  • Put yourself in other people's shoes.

  • And definitely don't try to cover your prejudice up with the tokenism of a group of people.

Let us tell our own stories and more importantly, listen to and consider what is being expressed. If being respectful is really a priority, then we have to build meaningful relationships with one another, and that starts with sincerely caring about each others' wants and needs. I honestly don't know how Tina Turner would feel about being someone's Halloween costume... but in the very least, please don't paint your skin a different color. The Blue Man Group might be down with it, though.

Check out these links for more resources:

Illuminative’s “Be A Myth Buster” Guide

National Congress of American Indians’ Ending the Era of Harmful Indian Mascots


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