As Halloween approaches, the pages of UC Santa Cruz’s Facebook network have hosted a number of conversations about costumes. One in particular focused on Native American costumes and their popularity contributing to issues of cultural insensitivity. A simple search for “Indian costume” on the Internet is telling — the first page of results on Google Shopping reads “tribal tease Indian,” “tribal treat” and “sexy Native American temptress.”
The popularity of these costumes fetishizing Native Americans is a testament to our ignorance about the effects of cultural appropriation and stereotypes. Dressing in the appropriated garb of another culture diminishes its meaning and reduces it to a caricature — a comical and exaggerated representation ridden with stereotypes. Not only does this create strife for those it affects, it “otherizes,” or makes alien, entire groups of people. “Otherizing” members of a cultural group is the first step to dehumanizing them.
This issue was best summed up in a series of public service announcements initiated by Ohio University students in 2011. They depict real people holding up pictures of costumes based on bastardized representations of their culture. The pictures contained costumes ranging from a geisha to a man in a poncho and a sombrero riding a donkey. The PSAs aptly proclaim, “We’re a culture, not a costume.” Campaigns like these speak to the fact that relegating another person’s cultural history and identity to a trivialized caricature at a party is demeaning.
Racist terms for Native Americans are cavalierly used as names for high school, college and professional sports teams. In the same vein, the cartoonish depiction of Native Americans in many of these teams’ logos is often even worse than stereotype-ridden costumes, yet society has apparently judged that these logos are not offensive enough to warrant a change.
Those who colonized the United States were complicit in a genocide of uncountable numbers of Native Americans. To some, wearing stereotype-ridden costumes may seem like a small, nearly harmless act, but it dismisses this dark history from our cultural consciousness. Stereotypical depictions are rampant in costumes, sports team logos, movies, video games and even books. In order to put a stop to the constant dehumanization of peoples, we must become more conscious of how cultures are portrayed and become critical of those depictions.
Being aware of stereotypes is the first step to avoiding them. The second step is understanding how playing into those stereotypes in jest negatively affects the cultures and peoples involved. If we educate ourselves about the meaning of what we choose to say, choose to support and choose to wear, we can avoid perpetuating these stereotypes and trivializing the cultures of our peers in the process.
Editor’s note: This editorial originally ran in our Oct. 24 print edition with a word, as well as an illustration. They have both been omitted for the online iteration for cultural and sensitivity concerns.