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Do Cultural And Ethnic Costumes Actually Benefit Americans?

Marisa Zocco |
October 31, 2014 | 1:27 a.m. PDT


Maybe this isn't as offensive as you think it is. (sea turtle/Flickr Creative Commons 2.0)
Maybe this isn't as offensive as you think it is. (sea turtle/Flickr Creative Commons 2.0)
I have always had a curiosity for Native American cultures. I remember being read a small portion of a book about a young Kootenai tribe girl as a kid and I had to have the book—“Pathki Nana.” I believe I went as a Native American that year for Halloween and I’ve considered dressing as one for Halloween a number of times since. 

It turns out to my surprise, that had I been able to afford a $50 polyester ready-made costume, the only identity that some would have seen in my headdress and native garb would have been the costume of a racist. I had no idea.

The concept that cultural costumes represent racism and are inappropriate is understandable. However, it is one I am unable to agree with. 

During a holiday originally centered on comfort and bringing communities together, the tension over cultural and ethnic costumes have actually begun to further segregate us. In a country known as a melting pot, these kinds of costumes can actually help us to identify with American culture as a whole. In fact certain costumes can even serve as ways to help us break tensions in current issues and foster discussion and shifts in viewpoints.

READ MORE: The Real Problem With The Ray Rice Costume

Many argue that dressing up as a representation of a culture outside of your own for Halloween is harmful because it supports oppressive power dynamics between historically powerful and marginalized groups, or that specific symbols like the Native American headdress are offensive because they are ceremonial symbols which must be earned.

A video blogger claims that those who don cultural costumes and say that they are paying homage are actually stealing cultures they do not understand and are pretending to attribute meaning to them.

The debate on cultural costumes has been heated. On public radio, a gentleman claimed that offended members of marginalized cultures arguing that European Americans should not wear cultural costumes at Halloween should, in return, not portray themselves as American or other cultures. 

But if we as Americans separated all cultures and were only able to dress up as something culturally neutral or as something relevant to our own personal heritage, our options would be fairly limited.

No Greek gods or goddesses, kings or queens. No more Cleopatra. No Roman gladiators. Those represent cultures too. And if we look into cultures, religion is closely related. Witches are real things in the Wiccan religion, not to mention the devastating history surrounding witchcraft in Salem, Mass. No witches, then. Angels are biblical figures. No more angels. And while we are at it, no more nuns either please, or priests.

But then here is an interesting question: what should an American wear?

We may not all be Native American, African American or Asian American, but we do have some sort of experience with one another’s cultures. And as Americans as a whole, should it not be acceptable to sample a taste of another's identity? Is it not feasible that trying on fun costumes and identifying as something other than what we are for a few hours could pique interest in learning more about different cultures?

READ MORE: How “I Am More Than A Distraction” Is A Bit Distracting

In saying other cultures are not welcome to toy with the idea of experiencing another without any strings attached, we discourage them from trying to understand and interact with these cultures and their real, difficult issues at all in the future. 

For example, if someone of one cultural or ethnic group asks that another not dress like them for the holiday, the request inhibits a connection. A person begins with a simple curiosity such as: what does it feel like to be a Native American princess? I might assume I’d feel beautiful and strong as these are associations that I have with the image of a Native American woman. 

But the moment that someone asks me to please not step into those shoes, I feel purposely pushed out of the experience and kept at a distance; as if I am an unwanted visitor who is not welcome to get in touch with any other aspects of that culture. The questions I could have come up with in my mind while assuming my imagined role might never come up otherwise. I might not get a headache and think to ask about the experience of women wearing much heavier, elaborate and authentic headdresses should their families have earned them. I might never experience feeling awkward on the street when someone passes me by in traditional clothing while I’m dressed up in a costume for a party. And I may never think to look into whether or not someone’s ancestors were forced to wear traditional clothing in front of European American colonists for show. The small questions may never lead to the big ones because I had been told "do not enter."

It seems we forget the history and evolution of Halloween. In its origins, the celebration was a time of finding comfort before the cold months that usually brought death along with them. In the 1800s the focus shifted to bringing communities together. Costume have always played a role in these festivities, but they have also become a way to relieve stress and anxiety while bringing different communities and cultures together.

After all, humans have a way of using humor to deal with stress. In a world full of conflict, humorous costumes allow us to seek relief from discomfort and to find some sort of connect that may be missing. This is why the Ebola Hazmat and ISIS terrorist costumes exist. Though some may claim that Ebola Hazmat costumes disrespect the people of west African countries in the midst of the battle against the virus and others argue that it is distasteful to dress as terrorists, it is also a way for our nation to cope with fears that are current and distressing. 

Thus the sexy hazmat costume:

The news of this costume made me laugh. Why? Because I’m terrified of Ebola. Also, while I’m not discussing the supposed sexism apparent in the large number of women's Halloween costumes, I think it’s funny that this costume makes fun of that in addition to taking a load off of people who are stressing about the Ebola crisis.

This is why cultural costumes should absolutely be worn and why costumes commenting on big news stories will continue to be a success. Not only can they bring comfort, but cultural costumes demonstrate a curiosity in what is going on in the world around us. They demonstrate and encourage the diversity of American culture and also help us to examine where we stand on a larger global scale.

On Halloween night, the holiday will remain essentially the same as it always has been. We get together to celebrate the coming of the cold months and to give ourselves comfort in tense times. This year, a source of tension is dealing with cultural and ethnic costumes as we struggle to define ever-changing American culture. When I am old an gray, we will still be mixing our cultures into the melting pot and I hope that we will still be unafraid to explore those cultures with costumes on Halloween.

Contact Contributor Marisa Zocco here.



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