Halloween: The Season for Culturally-Insensitive Fashion

Halloween: the season of candy corn, pumpkins and culturally-insensitive costumes. Over the last few years, images of these costumes have spread through social media, sparking heated debates about cultural appropriation and how seemingly innocuous "fashion statements" can indeed hurt.
10/30/2014 01:43 pm ET Updated Dec 30, 2014

Halloween: the season of candy corn, pumpkins and culturally-insensitive costumes. Over the last few years, images of these costumes and the people wearing them have spread through social media, sparking heated debates about cultural appropriation and how seemingly innocuous "fashion statements" can indeed hurt.

So what is cultural appropriation? In its most simplistic definition, it is the seizing of another culture without their consent. It's taking an otherwise complex culture and turning it into a caricature. It's the "Navajo" shirts that Urban Outfitters sold that essentialized the many different American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian people in the United States into one broad "Native" tribe defined as Navajo. It is the sports mascot that reduces an entire group to their skin color. It's the celebration of Columbus Day as a day in which Columbus "discovered" a country that had been inhabited by indigenous people for years, and the erasure of the acts and policies of enslavement. It's the Victoria's Secret 'Geisha' lingerie line that featured white models in Orientalist eye makeup and outfits, which in the words of blogger Nina Jacinto, only perpetuates the stereotype of Asian women as objects of sexual fantasy, trading in "real humanness for access to culture." It's the Vogue dance-style that was attributed to Madonna when it really originated with gay urban men of color. It's Gwen Stefani wearing cultural and spiritual objects such as bindis as fashion, and using Asian-American dancers as props, always claiming that she is celebrating their culture.

It's also the Dolce & Gabbana "black busts" earrings that commodified black bodies and were defended on the grounds that they "represented" Sicilian Blackmoore pottery, ignoring the legacy of race-based slavery which influenced this tradition. And while we're on the subject of earrings, who can forget when Vogue Italia referenced large hoop earrings as "slave earrings" in their fall 2011 issue, citing the "women of color" who were "brought" to the United States as their fashion inspiration? Brought, not sold. Brought, not enslaved. Cultural appropriation. Done.

Because cultural appropriation is so often found in fashion, it is not taken that seriously. Fashion is fun and fantasy, wrapped up in a bright pick Victoria's Secret bag that can then be discarded when it no longer fits. Perhaps that's why on Halloween, a one-night event where the whole purpose is to take on another identity, we witness so much unapologetic appropriation. After all, what you wear doesn't define you, right? I mean, just because someone is wearing a "native headdress" doesn't actually mean they have internalized the racism that is responsible for the eradication of tribes and their cultural practices?

For me, the issue isn't so black and white, in part because we have not allowed for an inclusion of American Indian voices into the dialogue about this issue until very recently, leaving many truly ignorant about why these supposedly "harmless" statements are indeed very harmful. It is difficult for me to point fingers at teenagers who, dressed up as "Indians" for Thanksgiving when they were five by their parents and teachers, are now expected to understand the complex meanings behind the hipster headdress they choose to rock to signify their escape from the rigid conformity of suburbia.

Furthermore, the privileging in our culture of Western fashion that emphasizes "newness" as a sign of progress and change tends to view American Indian tribes as examples of more traditional cultures who use clothing for utilitarian purposes. As Dakota artist and activist Bobby Wilson put it, we're fixated on this idea that "native people are frozen in time." Despite the efforts of minority students from the Ohio University, many Americans still view American Indians, and other minority groups, as a costume, not a culture. And because fashion is seen as so frivolous and something that goes out of trend so quickly, many argue that the industry's fascination with exoticizing certain cultures shouldn't be taken seriously. In fact, many counterarguments are made to cultural appropriation that on the contrary, minority groups should feel privileged by this representation of their culture by the mainstream.

So here's the problem. The argument that you can "try on" a cultural identity for a day and then discard it speaks to the ability of being able to return to your special place of privilege. You can take off your headdress and sleep at night, knowing that you don't have to wake up the next morning to confront a history of colonialism and genocide that has left your community living in an impoverished reservation, having to deal with segregation, racism and gross cultural misrepresentation in the form of films, sports mascots and holidays. As the "We're a Culture, not a Costume" Campaign put it, "You wear the costume for one night, we wear the stigma for life."

Americans take pride in our "American-ness," in our cultural traditions that bring us together such as Independence day, apple pie and the Star Spangled banner. But let's face it. There have always been some people who are considered more American than others. Just think about the term "All-American" and what it implies: white, blond, attractive, athletic. Are people of color then "partial-American?" Are they not American enough? Does that leave them in the position of having to defend the degree of their American-ness?

And this is why it is so dangerous to "dress up" as another culture, because a white person who dresses up as a "Mexican" in Arizona doesn't have to worry that his citizenship will be questioned. He can go to a "ghetto" party and wear his hoodie up in an effort to look more "hood" without fearing that he will get killed like Trayvon Martin. A white student who goes to a bar dressed in blackface doesn't have to worry about being turned away for no reason other than the color of his skin. He doesn't have to face the reality that when there is a hurricane, he will be wrongly labeled as a looter and then identified as a "refugee," a misplaced citizen.

As for the appropriation of American Indian culture, it is of course widespread and certainly not limited to white people, especially given the fashion industry's rampant appropriation of Native cultural objects that are spit out for "hipster" consumption. However, I think we need to ask why it is that "cultural" costumes are far more common to wear on Halloween and at theme parties than dressing up as say, a young white male. While people can conceive an image of a "ghetto" costume, a geisha, an Arab bedouin or a "Cherokee princess,"do we actually have a singular vision of what a white male looks like?

Fashion is not frivolous. Clothes, and the way in which we wear them to express our identity and who we are, can have profound meaning. If you really want to honor a culture, why not do it in a more thoughtful manner that brings to light all of its complexities? By doing it through fashion, you run the risk of treating an entire group of people as a trend, something that is in vogue one minute and out the next, easy to discard and forget.

Want to get involved with the campaign to end offensive Native American imagery and mascots? Check out the organization Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry and the critical fashion blogs Native Appropriations and Beyond Buckskin.

Looking for authentic Native jewelry and clothes made by Native artisans? Check out the Beyond Buckskin boutique!