Cultural Appropriation, the Scariest Costume of All

Three years ago, I chose
to dress up as Pocahontas for Halloween. I enjoyed the exotic look of the
costume, which included a faux-suede ‘Cherokee-style’ dress, a pair of leather
moccasins, a feather headdress and red war paint. This outfit fit in well with
those of my peers, who, among the more traditional costumes of witches and
black cats, dressed up as geishas, gypsies and sombrero-wearing ‘Mexicans.’

To me it was just
another costume I could pick out at Party City for $29.99.

Little did I know that
my seemingly harmless Halloween costume represented a far more sinister
societal problem: cultural appropriation. Defined as the adoption of elements of
one culture by members of the dominant culture, cultural appropriation can appear in a variety of forms, including wearing
culturally important symbols, such as Polynesian tribal tattoos and Indian
bindis; adopting culturally significant traditions, such as using sweat
lodges and practicing quasi-Buddhism; and resorting to tactics as malicious as the infamous blackface.

All is done without
regard to the cultural context of said symbols or traditions.

This practice is
especially prevalent during Halloween when many dress up as racial
caricatures, such as the Pocahontas costume I chose to wear three years ago. In
this way, my Halloween costume that year was far scarier than I ever intended.   

Before you dismiss this
as evidence of a hypersensitive ‘PC’ society that fails to focus on ‘real
issues,’ this practice is of legitimate concern; it demonstrates a far larger
system of inequality between dominant and minority cultures.

Because Native Americans
experiences are vastly underrepresented in mainstream society, often the only
representation non-Natives see of indigenous culture are through these harmful
caricatures. Though seemingly banal, my decision to wear this costume promoted
hurtful and even dangerous stereotypes against minorities and other
marginalized groups.

Also, by lumping them in
the same category as fantasy creatures such as fairies, vampires and ghosts,
this practice dehumanizes Native Americans and also denies the present realities
they have to face.     

For example, I, as a
non-Native, don’t belong to a racial group that faces the highest rates of
sexual assault in the country. I am not judged as lazy or unmotivated for
living “on the government’s dollar.” I don’t live in communities that suffer
from high rates of joblessness and alcoholism. I, as a non-Native person, can
be free of these negative associations and realities the moment I take off the

A common defense of this
practice is that it is a form of appreciation for a specific culture and that by
partaking in this tradition I am respecting the culture’s legitimacy. When
I put on the Pocahontas costume, however, I was not motivated by a deep
reverence for the historical figure or knowledge of the Powhatan culture.
Rather, it was simply a costume, a form of self-expression. It’s also important
to note that the act of appropriation is harmful regardless of its intent. I
did not intend to misrepresent Native Americans or trivialize the issues they
face, but by donning that costume, I effectively did.

This mistreatment is
definitely not confined to Native Americans. As shown by costumes named “Kimono
Express,” “Mexican Man” and “Sexy Señorita” at the popular costume
shop Spirit Halloween, this practice applies to many other marginalized groups.  

From controversy over
the Washington, D.C., football team’s name to the banning of headdresses at
music festivals, this issue is thankfully more becoming visible in the public
sphere. It is an issue that is also being discussed at the 5Cs. 

Yesterday, Oct. 23, Pomona’s Asian-American Mentor Program, in conjunction with Students
of Color Alliance, Pomona Events Committee, Intercollegiate Department of Asian
American Studies, Intercollegiate Department of Africana Studies and Pitzer
College’s Center for Asian and Pacific American studies, held a workshop
entitled “Culture is Not a Costume.” Attended by over 40 people, the workshop discussed the “harmful
and violent impact of misrepresentation and trivialization of marginalized

Thanks to efforts such
as these, I now realize how wrong my decision was.

Yet this article
ultimately has nothing to do with me, my guilt or my feelings about it. It
has to do with recognizing the pattern of exploiting and misunderstanding the
meaningful traditions of minority cultures and what we can do to stop it.

So, this Halloween, I
hope we are all responsible about our costume choices and leave the truly
frightening ones to haunted houses.

Lauren Bollinger PO ’18 is from the Bay Area and is interested in majoring in either English or sociology. She is a member of MERGE (Multi-Ethnic and Racial Group Exchange), a club devoted to raising awareness about multiracial issues at the 5Cs.

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