October 31, 2012

Halloween = "socially accepted racism"

Adrienne Keene writes about another Halloween-related travesty in her Native Appropriations blog:

So you wanna be an Indian for Halloween?I wasn't going to do a Halloween post this year. I thought about it, but decided I was going to try and let my posts from last year stand on their own. I've tried many approaches--the emotional plea, the in-your-face-racism approach, the "I am not a Costume" campaign--but every year, the arguments are the same. No one listens, people on both sides get angry, and then the conversation gets shelved until next year. But then, oh then, I was double-checking that the descriptions I quoted from the Spirit Halloween online store last year were still there...and I found this, and I couldn't let it go. This is their description of the "Indian Costume":"The Indian costume has been a part of the American Halloween scene since the beginning. Kids bedeck themselves in Indian costume jewelry and traditional Indian costumes and are able to live out a slice of American history.

The American Indian costumes that Spirit Halloween offers vary and come with a number of accessories that can make your Indian costume the best in the tribe. The American Indian Halloween costumes for men and boys are great costumes for any party or trick or treating adventure. Just don’t eat too much candy and go on a sugar induced vision quest!

The girl Indian costume variety is also a very popular Halloween costume idea. There are varieties for younger girls and women and similarly there are different accessories for the ladies with traditional Indian jewelry replacing the tomahawk and spear. There is also a sexy Indian costume for the more daring ladies out there trying to land their own John Smith.

Some of the accessories that Spirit offers for these great costumes are traditional Indian tools and weapons, guns, headdresses and jewelry. All of these accessories and costumes may only be a simulation of how these noble people lived, however, showing them deference and respect by keeping their memory alive in the traditions of America, especially one as festive and inspired as Halloween, is a great thing.

So when your kids want to don a traditional Indian costume with frays and a feather, don’t look at it as disrespectful. See it as a way to teach your little one about American history. Tell them about the rich tradition of the natives of this continent before the European invasion: the deep respect for nature, a rich, textured oral history, tribal society, etc. Let them in on the knowledge that for a thousand years, before there were cities and highways and the internet, there was a race of people living amongst the animals and trees. It will set their imagination on fire while instilling in them a sense of respect for Native Americans as well as a desire to learn more about them.

Halloween doesn’t have to be just candy and costumes, so this year, have your kid join the noble ranks of the thousands before him or her who wore the costume they will wear and tell them about the great tradition of it."
Adrienne summarizes what's wrong with this description:Enjoy. Welcome to 2012, where Indians don't exist, lived in the trees, and are super honored by trashy, "sexy," Indian costumes. Cause if you don't dress up like your a-historical, romanticized, fake, plastic "Indian," no one will remember the tragic, noble savage. Right.Why Native costumes fail

Some postings address Halloween-style Native costumes in general:

Calling Out Socially Acceptable Racism

By KevinI do not believe most people who wear these costumes are malicious in their intent. I honestly think many people would have the same attitude and questions as the women above did in the last video.

We all have blind spots and if one was raised in the mainstream U.S. society I would argue one is pre-conditioned to ignore and be dismissive of Native Americans. What we did to them is a dark part of our history that we gloss over and choose to remember only in myth and stereotype because the brutality and evil of what we have done and continue to do is horrendous.

However, malicious or not, pre-conditioned or not, people who wear these costumes are participating in socially accepted racism.

These costumes are racist because they make a mockery of traditional Native American regalia, which often have spiritual and personal meaning.

These costumes are racist because they are based on stereotypes, not reality.

These costumes are racist because (especially for the female costumes) they contribute to the sexualization of Native American women. Native American women are 10 times more likely than white women to be victims of sexual assault. Part of this reason is that they are seen as inherently “rapeable” by the dominant society and sadly often even within their own society due to their sexualization and fetishization which these costumes contribute to.

Perhaps most importantly, these costumes are racist because they are worn by people who live on what was originally Native American land. Physical and cultural genocide and countless injustices were used to take possession of these lands. Making a mockery of the culture that has suffered so much so our comfortable 1st world existence is rather uncaring and ignorant.

In short, to accept these costumes, but not black face costumes, or slave costumes, or costumes of Latinos, or Asians, or Middle Easterners, or White people is inconsistent and represents a double standard. This double-standard points to the larger issue of socially acceptable racism against Native Americans present in our society.

So stop it.
You Indians Need to Worry about More Important Things than Halloween Costumes

By Chase IronEyesBecause most Americans see American Indians as a conquered and disappearing race or because we are not highly visible to them, they see no wrong in playing Indian dress-up, particularly in social situations which do not include Indians. When in fact there is definitely a wrongful appropriation happening, this is the same as Little Black Sambo and blackfacing. Members of the mainstream--historically of Euro descent but now of many “races” subscribing to Western world-views--have crafted 500 years of institutional paradigms that most always include depicting the Indian as noble, savage, bloodthirsty, lusty, and/or fierce. More importantly, mainstream is convinced by centuries of brainwashing that Indians, having not figured out how to exploit the earth properly, were and continue to be impediments to "progress"; of course as that term is used in "modern" financial-industrial civilization. These collective paradigms see us as relics, as interesting little bits of history-–that go well with White heroes as the protagonist in our stories, well their stories like Dances with Wolves and Avatar.

Consider these questions: Can I touch your hair? Are you a real Indian? Do you live in a tipi? I have personally been asked these questions in real life. Can I put your living culture in museum? Can I withhold sacred items for scientific inspection? Can you be our specimen? Can we track you based on pedigree as we do our dogs and horses? Can we enforce our imaginary Christian dominion over you without you even questioning its legitimacy? These questions are sometimes not even asked or fail to raise a brow on most Indians.

Thus, I can understand why the average American would not care to consider whether his or her action in dressing up as an Indian for Halloween is offensive. I have said before that no longer are we living our identity; we are looking at it through a lens created by the European-–a lens in which Indians are inferior and whites are superior. We are looking through a lens created and shown by such ongoing practices as Indian Halloween costumes, countless Hollywood "Indian" cameos or Indian oriented material, phony commercialized "Indian" products, and the use of Indians as team nicknames and mascots. Whatever the market (sometimes called “society”) demands, the market will produce. Right now, we are seeing what the mainstream market demands, the aforementioned.

This society will tolerate Scott Brown (US Senator) staffers doing the tomahawk chop and making the mock war cry of “woowoowoowoo” with hand batting over mouth. This society produces and tolerates the GAP clothing company and designer Mark McNairy recent release of a t-shirt line which simply displayed the words “manifest destiny” on the chest--essentially celebrating genocide. This society allows Dr. Phil to condemn our people for protecting our rights under ICWA to raise our children in our ways and to stop the loss of our kids to the social services system. This society bans “ethnic” studies and censors the education its students receive. This society destroys our sacred sites and threatens our waters. The Indian Wars Never Ended!
Comment:  Neither of these postings makes the key point explicit, so I'll make it for them. Dressing as a faux Indian for Halloween is celebrating the Indians' inferiority. Their alleged primitive and savage nature. It's telling the world that the Indians were meant to lose and die. That the policies of Manifest Destiny and genocide were justified.

As Iron Eyes notes, the same applies to phony "Indian" products and Indian team names and mascots. The stereotypes exist for the same reason and convey the same message. Namely, that Indians are primitive people of the past who don't deserve their treaty rights or human rights. Who got what they deserved.

If people really wanted to honor Indians on Halloween, they'd dress in a suit and tie, lab coat, or sports uniform like today's Indians. They'd learn Native history and culture and share it with others. They'd chastise people who wear stereotypical costumes like the ones they used to wear.

You don't honor a lion, tiger, or bear by killing it, stuffing it, and mounting it on a wall. You honor such an animal by leaving it alive and alone so you can continue honoring it. Only an idiot thinks a dead animal or Indian is more worthy of honor than a live one.

For some recent offensive costumes, see:

Company pulls "Sassy Squaw" costume
Aubrey O'Day as Indian princess
Nun wears headdress at canonization
Lana Del Rey in a headdress
Paul Frank's racist "powwow"

For more on the problems with Halloween, see:

Okay to dress as real person?
Whites defend "right" to be racist
Racist costumes = white privilege


dmarks said...

I've seen such Indian princess costumes advertised at Newspaper Rock from time to time.

Rob said...

Alas, I haven't figured out how to control what appears in the ads. I'd probably have to catch them before they disappear, and that's hard to do.

dmarks said...

Does Google have a method by which to report racist/etc advertising?

Rob said...

I don't know, but I'd be surprised if it didn't. As with controlling the ads, though, I'd have to see an offensive ad before I could click on it or report it somehow. I don't check the blog often enough to make that feasible.