Halloween: the harms of exploiting cultural stereotypes

Ah, Halloween. That magical holiday when people of all kinds transform into whatever they want to be, if only for a night. A holiday that fills the streets with geisha girls, cowboys, indians, and everything in between. It is a harmless holiday where everyone gets to pretend. But how harmless is dressing yourself in cultural stereotypes and reducing entire cultures to commodified costumes?

It’s easy to see insensitive tropes emerge in cheesy Halloween costumes, but one that deserves special attention is the appropriation of first nations people and their symbols. The appropriation of Native American culture has spilled way beyond Halloween costumes and into hipster fashions. Those “native” headbands? That “Navajo printed” skirt? They are just as racist as the “sexy indian” costume.

This is offensive for numerous reasons. One is that often, those who appropriate these symbols can’t be bothered to even do their research. Don’t believe me? Search for “indian paint” on Tumblr. You will find page upon page of pictures of teens who have painted their faces with “indian” designs that usually have absolutely no discernible relation to any symbols that any tribe uses in rituals. It would be the equivalent of someone painting “cheeseburger” on their face and calling it traditional American face paint.

Native people in this country were robbed of their symbols and spiritual practices when they were systematically forced out of their land by westward moving colonists. The history of forced assimilation is a dark mark on American history. Buying parodies of those symbols at places like Urban Outfitters is offensive to those who come from a history where their families were punished for exercising their right of spiritual expression.

Native people in America are an invisible culture even today. They lack  meaningful representation in everything from government to media. Turning sacred native symbols into a trendy commodity means also that they are something that will eventually be discarded as the trend dies. This is unacceptable to a culture that is already struggling for representation.

This Halloween, think about that “sexy indian” costume a little more deeply before you buy it. And then extend that same level of critical thinking the next time you want to wear a feather in your hair or slip on a pair of those moccasins you bought at Forever 21. In the end, sensitivity is far more flattering than ignorance.