Our heritage and culture are not your Halloween costume

by Enrique C. Ochoa and Gilda L. Ochoa on October 28, 2014 in Cultura

ddlmfaceA school in our neighborhood recently held a “Dress as Your Heritage Day.”

For one Friday, students were encouraged to wear items representing their backgrounds, and some did. Students walked around campus in a combination of family heirlooms and seemingly exaggerated symbols to reflect their racial/ethnic groups.

The rationale underlying this day was cultural celebration, and families and students were representing their own heritages in ways that they wanted. On the face of it, this seemed like good ole’ fashion fun where dressing up breaks the routine of school and students show-off their family backgrounds.

However, when placed in a larger context, this seemingly innocuous day can perpetuate detrimental messages:

  1. that groups and cultures are costumes, even caricatures that can be put on and taken off at the leisure of the wearer, and
  2. that students should dress to assimilate all other days by leaving their backgrounds at the school gates.

With Halloween and Thanksgiving quickly approaching, it is important to reflect on the politics of cultural and racial dress. These school practices and individual actions are not isolated incidents. They are part of a system of racism and inequality imbedded in U.S. society.

Elementary school Thanksgiving Day programs, as well as school and professional sports teams, have long perpetuated dressing up as Native Americans.

Claiming that teams are honoring Native Americans, students make and wear paper headdresses during Thanksgiving and cheer on teams that use names and symbols assumed to be Native American.

Typically presented in decontextualized and ahistorical ways, such practices perpetuate mis-education. They ignore the legacy of genocide and colonialism. They also disregard the heterogeneity of Native American cultural practices and their contemporary presence in the United States.

Deep-seated racism has recently been on full display in area K-12 schools and universities. In 2012, for the third year in a row, students at Canyon High School in Anaheim Hills participated in a Senior Dress-up Day — “Señiores (sic) and Señoritas Day” — where some dressed as gardeners, gang members, pregnant teenagers, and border patrol agents arresting other students.

As part of some “bonding exercise” this past summer, East Redlands High School cheerleaders dressed as “gang members and pregnant cholas.” In August, a sorority at California State Fullerton held a Taco Tuesday event and members dressed as so-called Mexicans. Mexicanas/os were superficially symbolized in unidimensional caricatures as food, sombreros, and sarapes – for the enjoyment of others.

Over the past couple of years, similar parties and events targeting Mexicans, Asian Americans, and African Americans have been held at a number of universities including Randolph-Macon, Duke, Penn State, Baylor, Arizona State, USC, and UC Irvine. Often worn in the name of fun by students who do not identify with these racial/ethnic groups, stereotyped costumes and theme parties mask the realities of people’s histories, cultures, and lives.

The schools and students who indulge in these activities have a range of reasons– from ones that appear well-meaning as in the Dress your Heritage example to others that are more nefarious. However, when removed from critical discussions and historical understandings, these practices dehumanize groups and justify inequality, including racism and violence.

False representations mocking groups of color and praising whites have been part of the legacy of U.S. racism and have even been used to justify slavery, conquest, and genocide. Historically, the dominating classes often described these violent processes as well intentioned; they rationalized them as a “White Man’s Burden” or a missionary duty to uplift so-called backward races and groups.

Nonetheless, they were racist from the outset, and communities of color were caricaturized. Such was the case of minstrel shows in the early 20th century, where white actors dressed up in “black face” and acted in stereotypical ways justifying white domination for the benefit of white audiences.

Western movies starring John Wayne portrayed Native Americans (played by a white actor) in stereotypical ways with halted speech and stilted movements. There was little reference to the structural assaults on their ways of life that form the basis of U.S. history.

Today, we don’t have to look far at the extensive amounts of police brutality, the killings of African-American youth, and the arrests and deportation of record numbers of immigrants without due process. These violent practices stem from multiple processes, but we cannot overlook the roles that objectification and dehumanization have in condoning them.

The contemporary use of degrading costumes, symbols, and parties is fueled in part by a lack of education about the roots of racism and inequality. Fortunately, there are movements currently challenging the educational landscape.

In 2011, Ohio University students launched “We’re a Culture Not a Costume” poster campaign to highlight how ethnic/racial costume wearing perpetuates stereotypes, objectification, and cultural appropriation. Institutionally, a crucial step in raising awareness is the important push for Ethnic Studies classes and requirements in K-12 schools.

As a society, when we are provided with greater historical content and critical awareness, it is more difficult to mock groups’ struggles, cultures, and lives.

By creating such educational spaces, schools can become more inclusive places where people will not have to check their backgrounds at the door or only be encouraged to display them during “Heritage Days.”

Equipped with greater knowledge, a space will be fostered to encourage all to be who they are on a daily basis in ways that do not camouflage histories, caricaturize groups, or reinforce inequalities.

About Enrique C. Ochoa and Gilda L. Ochoa:

Enrique C. Ochoa is Professor of Latin American Studies and History at CSULA and a founder of the Latino/a History Bee; Gilda L. Ochoa is Professor of Sociology and Chicana/o-Latina Studies at Pomona College and author of Academic Profiling.

 

Calavera makeup photo via Cosmopolitan’s list of “Latina” Halloween costumes you shouldn’t wear if you’re not Latina.

{ 11 comments }

Rosa October 28, 2014 at 11:18 AM

Thanks for such a great post.

See example of of blog post where “Day of the Dead” is presented as “Stylish Halloween.”
http://hisugarplum.blogspot.com/2014/10/stylish-halloween-bash.html#_a5y_p=2606087

Day of the Dead is NOT Halloween, but a rich celebration for millions of people in Mexico and in the U.S.

Blog posts like this one devalue this ancestral celebration and reduce it to another Halloween caricature.

Noratorious October 28, 2014 at 1:37 PM

I whole-heartedly agree that dressing up as an ethnicity different from one’s own is insulting and degrading, and a form of overt racism; whether one is aware of these effects or not.
However, a day in which students are able to celebrate their own ethnicities seems to me to be a way to fight against this form of racism.
By allowing students to express their ethnicities in dress, these students are able to learn more about their own roots, and have opportunities to share their histories with other students.
When the act is an authentic representation of one’s own ancestry, the effect it has on others is one of education. Other students get to learn the realities of their own ancestry and the realities of the ancestries of their classmates. It is a catalyst to breaking stereotypes and introducing other, non-white-American, histories into the context of contemporary social interactions. The effects it has on the individual student is one of pride in one’s heritage; a day to celebrate one’s background when all other days ignore it.
Assimilation exists and has been a major part of American history, but when people are encouraged to spend just one day not assimilating and presenting what makes them unique based on their heritage, students can be proud of where they come from and what their ancestors have accomplished.
I see this as a learning experience; not just for the students who must learn about their own ancestry, but for other students to learn about their classmates’ ancestry. The valuable lesson that we are vastly different but all human and all valuable can be more easily learned when it is presented to us in a direct way such as this.
Otherwise, students would remain ignorant to the value of the diversity of heritages not their own, and how we are all a part of American history. It is a method of celebrating diversity, not ethnic appropriation.

Diogenes October 28, 2014 at 6:37 PM

Sorry if I’m missing the point, but what does a “Dress as Your Heritage Day,” a “Senior Dress Up Day,” a misguided “bonding experience,” and a misguided “Taco Day” held by a sorority have to do with Halloween?

Sure, it’s offensive to dress up as stereotypes, offensive for little white kids to dress up as little indian braves for Thanksgiving, etc.; and perhaps the authors are assuming that some people might do this for Halloween (and perhaps they are correct to some extent). Certainly the, “use of degrading costumes, symbols, and parties is fueled in part by a lack of education about the roots of racism and inequality,” but are the authors of this article assuming that this practice doesn’t happen in reverse? Are the misguided and misinformed actions of a handful of individuals in isolated scenarios being held up as exemplary actions that all white people engage in? Certainly there are cultural implications referent to “a system of racism and inequality” embedded “in U.S. society,” but doesn’t making this claim equate to making the broad assumption, or proffer the stereotype, that all “white people” are culturally insensitive and/or racist?

We’re not all the same (us white people): some of us are English, some of us are Scottish, some of us are Irish, Polish, German, Czech, Slovak, Finnish, Swedish, French, Jewish, Danish… Some of us and some of our ancestors were oppressed in our homelands, and were then subject to further racism and oppression when we came to America. Some of us don’t care if someone of another ethnicity wants to wear green on St. Patrick’s Day or lederhosen for Oktoberfest. Some of us aren’t offended if someone of another race wants dress up as a leprechaun, a mobster, or a viking for Halloween.

Also, “heritage” is a loaded term. For instance, many white southerners will make reference to their “heritage” or “culture” when defending their right to engage in racist behavior. Why is taking pride in one heritage/culture a good thing and another heritage/culture a bad thing? Arguably one culture represents an oppressor class, and another a class ostensibly repressed by the former class, but does that vindicate the latter? But what if we abstracted the issue slightly and took as an example someone of German descent who wanted to celebrate his family’s heritage and dress up as an SS officer? What if a white southern American wants to dress up as a Klansman? I mean, they’re only celebrating their heritage? Why should celebrating one’s heritage necessarily be a good thing, and why does assimilation necessarily need to be a bad thing?

I’m not indulging in an intentional fallacy here; I’m not making the assumption that the authors are being reverse-racist, that they’re lumping all “white people” together, and/or that they’re saying that the actions of a few idiots are emblematic of a diverse aggregate of races and ethnicities that happen to share the same skin color. I’m just playing the devil’s advocate and pointing out that these assumptions will be made by some. My point is that while this article makes some salient points about the inherent lack of cultural sensitivity: both in general in American society and also for the handful of examples that it references, I fail to see the direct connection between these instances and Halloween costumes. The argument in this article is clumsy and poorly thought/laid out (and is almost knee-jerk reactionary) and the logic that supports it is somewhat faulty and almost dangerous if misapplied to more nefarious ends.

College Student October 29, 2014 at 3:43 PM

“But what if we abstracted the issue slightly and took as an example someone of German descent who wanted to celebrate his family’s heritage and dress up as an SS officer? What if a white southern American wants to dress up as a Klansman? I mean, they’re only celebrating their heritage? Why should celebrating one’s heritage necessarily be a good thing, and why does assimilation necessarily need to be a bad thing?”

You are interchanging “heritage” for the cult of violence and terrorism when they shouldn’t be. These costumes would obviously be problematic because they promote physical and bodily harm to others. When a person wears a Nazi uniform it’s not to celebrate his or her German ancestry. This is different from painting ones’ face as a sugar skull. I understand that you’re playing the devil’s advocate here but your argument doesn’t line up properly.

Jennifer October 28, 2014 at 7:46 PM

and yet the “Racist” card is played again.
I personally I am Celtic/Nordic but for this holy holiday that marks Dia de Los Muertos for Hispanics, it allows me to honor my dead including but not limited too my mother.
I will continue to adopt this heritage whether one culture agrees.
I am not sorry and will continue to show representation and love a heritage that honors their loved ones.

Student October 28, 2014 at 8:57 PM

The term “adoption” is packed with a lot of history and to say you will continue to “adopt” this heritage is problematic. It would also be wrong to say you will borrow this heritage. You cannot adopt or borrow a heritage but it is okay to partake in a Dia de Los Muertos celebration so long as you are respectful.

Student October 28, 2014 at 8:41 PM

To Diogenes: The point/connection between the events you listed and Halloween is that. “With Halloween and Thanksgiving quickly approaching, it is important to reflect on the politics of cultural and racial dress. These school practices and individual actions are not isolated incidents. They are part of a system of racism and inequality imbedded in U.S. society.”

“Sure, it’s offensive to dress up as stereotypes, offensive for little white kids to dress up as little indian braves for Thanksgiving, etc.; and perhaps the authors are assuming that some people might do this for Halloween (and perhaps they are correct to some extent). ”

-They are not correct to some extent, they are correct. It happens. Some Halloween costume stores carry racist costumes. That’s a fact. Some people dress up in racist costumes. Fact.

Also, “But what if we abstracted the issue slightly and took as an example someone of German descent who wanted to celebrate his family’s heritage and dress up as an SS officer? What if a white southern American wants to dress up as a Klansman? I mean, they’re only celebrating their heritage? Why should celebrating one’s heritage necessarily be a good thing, and why does assimilation necessarily need to be a bad thing?”
Wat. Why. If someone were to dress up as an SS officer or a Klansman to celebrate their heritage, that’s just racist. The term “celebration” connotes happiness. You celebrate something you are happy about and something that makes you proud.

“Why does assimilation necessarily need to be a bad thing?”
How would you feel if you came to a foreign place in hopes of having a better life and in hopes of being happy, but you had change almost every single thing about yourself?

Lastly, reverse-racism is not a thing.
“Racism exists when prejudice+power combine to form social constructs, legislation and widespread media bias that contribute to the oppression of the rights and liberties of a group of people.” (http://feminspire.com/why-reverse-racism-isnt-real/)

One more thing to keep in mind:
lumping all white people together and making generalizations about them doesn’t get them killed.

Lucia October 29, 2014 at 11:12 AM

why blame others for our own stereotype when WE have contributed to it. If we are going to change this perception we have to push for education within our communities. We are in full control of this. Let’s quit complaining and focus on education please.

Shane October 30, 2014 at 7:50 AM

Maybe you should stop taking things so seriously and relax. After all that is your heritage not you. If your culture and life were so great then why did your ancestors come here. Before anyone claims my ancestor were slaves guess what it was people in your own culture that enslaved your ancestors first. There were no white people going on hunting parties gathering them together They showed up on ships with one cargo and left with a different cargo that is the way it was. So get over your high and mighty cultural self and be an American and get your as out there to vote this Tuesday.

J Brockman October 30, 2014 at 8:27 AM

I visited a high school that served children of very recent immigrants from all over the world. Heritage day was a great success. The faculty joined in with their own heritage costumes. Of course, when the person is diversified, and more and more are, then the costumes can be quite eclectic. Certainly made for a less boring day at school.

Pissed off Mexican October 30, 2014 at 2:43 PM

You guys are ridiculous. I’m a Mexican-born Mexican of Mexican parents whose parents were also Mexican and so forth as far back as I can remember and know. Nobody in my family has any issue with non-Mexicans (or non-Latinos, for that matter) dressing in Dia de los Muertos attire. It’s a day to honor our dead. Equating someone wearing calavera makeup with someone wearing blackface and minstrel shows really demonstrates how ignorant you two so-called professors are (do you even speak Spanish?). I feel bad for your students. So take your own personal hatred and bias, pull the ignorant MEChA / Aztlan pole from your derrieres, and stop trying to speak for a culture which isn’t even yours (Chicanos didn’t invent Dia de los Muertos, by the way). Who’s appropriating a culture? You guys are. If there’s anyone that’s perpetrating the hate and racism, it is people such as yourselves. One can be proud to be a member of a certain culture, and one can be proud to be member of a certain culture while hating everyone else. Who’s the racist now? Look in the mirror at your own calavera makeup and wipe it off, because if this article is truth, then you two don’t deserve to put it on either.

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