“It’s getting old. I’m surprised people still do it,” she says.
Each year, new photographs from parties around the world go viral on social media showing celebrities and drunk college students dressed in everything from Native American Warbonnets and Mexican serapes to geisha makeup and blackface.
In 2012, Toronto Maple Leafs Centre Tyler Bozak was photographed during Halloween wearing dark makeup and defended it as a “tribute” to Michael Jackson. Last year, Australian actor Chris Hemsworth dressed in a “cowboys and Indians” themed costume and then added his regrets to a slew of celebrity costume apologies.
Disney has faced public ire since last fall when it released a brown bodysuit costume online based off the tribal-tattooed Polynesian demigod Maui depicted in the 2016 film Moana. Last month, a mommy blogger on rareconscious.org set off the debate again, questioning whether her daughter should dress as the title character, the daughter of an Indigenous Polynesian chief.
An op-ed published this month in the Star proclaiming it a young girl’s right to dress as a Pocahontas-style “native princess” received criticism on Twitter.
And earlier this week, online retailer halloweencostumes.com pulled a costume from its website that depicted young Jewish Holocaust victim Anne Frank.
While supporters cry “political correctness” and argue for free expression and “cultural appreciation,” critics denounce the costumes as racist cultural appropriation that perpetuates stereotypes.
It’s a recurring cultural conversation that is not going away.
“It keeps happening because there’s some fundamental misconception around what people understand to be either scary or a collectively shared public joke,” says University of Toronto professor and cultural critic Rinaldo Walcott.
If these costumes are “jokes” then it is clear they’re not landing, particularly for the Black and Indigenous groups so often depicted in the most controversial of costumes.
“They are harmful and they are hateful,” says Walcott. “We understand them as not just images from a history and a past gone. Many Black and Indigenous people are still living that history today.”
When people dress up as Pocahontas, they ignore the current struggles of Indigenous people that stem from a history of colonization in favour of a whitewashed Disney narrative that presents the character as a princess among savages. When people wear blackface, they ignore the history of white minstrel performers who used the theatrical makeup in their racist depictions of slaves, and they ignore racism that still exists today, which NFL stars and Black Lives Matter activists continue to protest around the world, including in Toronto, says Walcott.
“When we see people engage in blackface, dress up in fake Indigenous costumes and so on, we know that these things are meant to denigrate those groups,” he says. “We know deep in our cultural consciousness, those groups have been seen to be less than or not civilized.”
Intention doesn’t matter, he says. We should know better in our highly “visual culture,” that wearing a cowboy costume can’t be separated from the colonizing history of North America, says Walcott, and that widening your behind and bust for a Beyoncé costume at Halloween isn’t respect as much as racism.
“Even when the claim is being made that it is somehow an appreciation, what it’s actually doing is reproducing stereotypes and degradations of the people that they claim they’re paying homage too,” he says.
While some stores that sell an array of these costumes have remained mum on the subject, many educational institutions have attempted to address the issue. The Toronto District School Board’s Aboriginal Education Centre provides advice to principals each year, including having further classroom discussion around Indigenous issues. “While dressing as a super hero is one thing, dressing in a way that reduces culture to caricature suggests that the culture being portrayed is less important than others,” reads a document provided by the Centre to principals.
Earlier this month, the French school board Conseil scolaire Viamonde, which encompasses central-southwestern Ontario, circulated a memo asking “Is My Costume Appropriate?” Walcott calls the attempt to quell racist attire “admirable,” but takes issue with the language such as “urban ghetto dwellers” to describe certain costumes.
It’s an issue that stays with students well into the education system. University and college students are often the worst offenders during the season. Students unions across the country have been trying to get ahead of ill-informed costume ideas for a while now. The students union at Waterloo’s University of Wilfrid Laurier is in its fourth year of its “I am not a costume” campaign. Last year, they included transgender issues in the project when they became aware of people wearing costumes mocking Caitlyn Jenner, the former Olympian who had recently revealed she is transgender.
“Those costumes aren’t jokes for people who have those lived experiences,” says Jaydene Lavallie, volunteer and community engagement director with the Laurier Students’ Public Interest Research Group. Lavallie’s Indigenous heritage comes from her father, who is Michis-Cree from Northern Saskatchewan. For people of colour, Lavallie says, culture is not a costume.
“It’s not a fun thing they get to put on and take off whenever they want,” she says.
At the University of Toronto, student union vice-president of equity Chimwemwe Alao says the costume gaffes often come out of a lack of empathy and understanding, which the union’s new campaign hopes to remedy.
“Part of it comes from people not understanding how wearing an outfit that represents another person’s culture as a costume can be insulting,” says Alao, 22, who still remembers seeing someone wearing blackface in Texas when he was trick or treating as a young kid just 11 or 12 years ago. “It was fully unabashed. The person who did it had no understanding of the historical connotations.”
It shouldn’t take a history lesson to understand that these costumes are wrong if even young kids can grasp the issue, says Scarborough mom and youth worker Henderson.
Some of the Indigenous kids and teens she has worked with have taken offence to costumes meant to represent their own people, from “Native Chief” imitations to sexualized “Pocahotties.”
She’s discussed racism and cultural appropriation with her own children, who are dressing as some of their favourite film and comic book characters: Wolverine, Guardians of the Galaxy critter Rocket the Raccoon and Batman’s nemesis the Joker. It’s been instilled “from the get go,” she says, not to dress up as specific cultures and ethnicities.
“Those Halloween costumes are not depicting cultures. They’re making mockeries of them,” she says. “Kids are picking up on this. Maybe adults should listen.”