Halloween is a time of the year where the young and the young-at-heart express themselves through the use of costumes. There will be countless parties leading up to October 31st where folks will show off their duds with the hope of impressing others with their creativity. In the mix of this will most assuredly be costumes that will be borderline (or completely) tasteless, tacky and offensive.
Now, I know what you’re thinking:
Oh here it comes. This guy is going to go on a rant about blackface and I’m tired of hearing about this.
It’s all in fun, Ahmad. Lighten up!
Hear me out first. Growing up as a kid, no one flinched at the sight of little children wearing headdresses, carrying bows and arrows and fake tomahawks. There were also folks sporting huge sombreros and oversized mustaches while making their best attempt at a “Speedy Gonzalez” impression. As the country started to acknowledge the importance of respecting other cultures, some folks decided these images are potentially problematic. However, you can still purchase full scale costumes that “mock” other cultures. Do you know why people frown on “blackface?” Black people decided to remind the general public about the sordid past of the practice. “Documentaries such as Ethnic Notions described in great detail the inherent racism attached to blackface and other damaging tropes used in the media to disparage Black people. Now here is where the rubber meets the road. Do you know why you do not hear the same furor about headdresses, Day of the Dead costumes and Eastern/Asian cultural appropriation? Those voices (and they are out there) are not widely respected or taken seriously the way they should be in America.
Ahmad, you’re being too sensitive. Nobody cares about this!
It is a lot harder to gloss over America’s history with its citizens from African descent. The very fabric of the country is girded with the underlying issue of race and oppression. However, we still feel it is okay to appropriate Native American culture. You could make a case about how the blood of indigenous people flows through all our veins therefore you can wear the multi-feathered headdress or dress like a “squaw.” You could go the “it’s a free country and I can dress how I want to” route. If that’s how you feel…fine. But please look at this excerpt from a piece entitled “An open letter to Non-Natives in Headdresses from the site Apihtawikosisan.com:
For the most part, headdresses are restricted items. In particular, the headdress worn by most non-natives imitate those worn by various Plains nations. These headdresses are further restricted within the cultures to men who have done certain things to earn them. It is very rare for women in Plains cultures to wear these headdresses, and their ability to do so is again quite restricted.
So unless you are a native male from a Plains nation who has earned a headdress, or you have been given permission to wear one (sort of like being presented with an honorary degree), then you will have a very difficult time making a case for how wearing one is anything other than disrespectful, now that you know these things. If you choose to be disrespectful, please do not be surprised when people are offended… regardless of why you think you are entitled to do this.
Even if you have ‘native friends’ or are part native yourself, individual choices to “not be offended” do not trump our collective rights as peoples to define our symbols.
You can read the rest of the post at: http://apihtawikosisan.com/hall-of-shame/an-open-letter-to-non-natives-in-headdresses/
If you take this as a sweeping indictment of people who let their kids dress up like other cultures or who want to show their cultural appreciation, it’s not. There are plenty of items that are culturally acceptable to wear. It would behoove us to do the research to see what things are revered in a certain cultures, so that we do the right thing and steer clear of them. What you will find if you do the research is there is serious dialogue taking place on whether non-Indians can wear Bindis or Saris without being offensive and which Native American items are okay and which are not. This could actually be a good thing for you and your children because it will expand your world view….and you might just learn something.
Now, if you are pulling a “Katy Perry” and donning “yellowface” while mixing various Asian cultures...THAT, could be seen as problematic. It comes across like you are fetishizing the culture instead of appreciating it. Actually any painting of faces to “capture” a culture or dressing up like an over-the-top stereotype of a culture puts you in offensive territory.
Here’s the thing to remember: If you don't want to wear your costume in a room full of the people you are “appreciating," you probably should get another costume.
Enjoy your candy.
Ahmad is the Head of Education and Exhibitions at BCRI