Social Question

whitetigress's avatar

Do you feel it is racist to dress up as Native American? Why or why not?

Asked by whitetigress (3129points) October 31st, 2011

I follow this girl on Tumblr.

And she talks about how anything that copies Native American culture by modern society, especially those who aren’t Native American, is wrong. I respect her opinions a lot but for me I feel they are extra extreme because personally being a half Filipino/American person myself, I don’t really mind if someone were to dress up as say, a Filipino warrior like Lapu-lapu or an American Cowboy.

Well anyhow, what are your thoughts? A lot of her examples and defense always pertains to something along the lines of, “Whites could never understand the true meaning of being on the end of racism.”

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38 Answers


Not at all. Kids (and adults) dress up as Ninjas, Samurai Warriors, and Geisha all the time at Halloween, and I’m not offended.

My daughter once dressed as Pocahontas one year, and I thought she made a very pretty Pocahontas. I think it’s a tribute to Native culture, just like how some kids admire and dress up as Ninjas.

zensky's avatar

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

iphigeneia's avatar

I’ve already made my stance on this issue known in a similar question, but I’ll talk about it a little more here.

First: I’m half Chinese, and I don’t mind if non-Chinese people go around wearing qipao.

The thing is, it’s not our job to tell people whether or not they should be offended. I put that bit in bold because I think it’s a bit of a novel idea. You may not be offended by people appropriating your cultural heritage, but others will be. Often they have good reasons, too.

If you’re not a person of colour, you probably don’t understand what it’s like to experience racism in countries where white people have established dominance. I know that I have never experienced the sort of disadvantages and discrimination that many Native American people have experienced, so I do my best to see things from their perspective.

A couple of points from the blog that explained everything pretty clearly:
“I dislike it when people…fetishize my culture.”
“I do want people to be curious, interested and involved with modern natives, and our experiences. I just would rather people know the real thing, instead of the fantasy perpetuated by a broken system that continues to actively oppress us.”
“To “honor” something by appropriating it, displays an inherent sense of superiority.”
“In the late 19th Century the nostalgic romanticizing of nature, and of the Indians that had once been found in nature, recreated Indians in all of their “natural” glory, as noble savages, mythical icons of America’s wilderness past….even though the Noble Savage is defended as being a “positive” stereotype, the result is historical amnesia and the dehumanization of real people who still exist.”

Honestly, I think the “tribute” argument is rubbish. It just means you have romanticised the idea of what it means to be a Native American person. To steal from the Wikipedia article on blackface, dressing as a stereotype “play[s] a significant role in cementing and proliferating racist images, attitudes and perceptions”.

Bellatrix's avatar

Wearing the ceremonial clothing of Indigenous groups here in Australia is considered by some Aboriginal people to be very offensive. Not all, but some people are offended. The clothing (and other artefacts belonging to Indigenous culture) represent their heritage, their totems and their belief systems. While people may not intend to demean their culture, for some that is how behaviour such as wearing their clothing or mimicking their art is viewed.

A while ago there were some Russian figure skaters who had planned to perform an Aboriginal inspired dance and to wear clothing representative of Aboriginal dress. Some Indigenous elders were very offended

I would avoid risking causing offence by not wearing Indigenous (or other culturallly sensitive) clothing.

everephebe's avatar

I rarely wear blue jeans.

YARNLADY's avatar

No, I do not find it offensive. I do see the point of people wanting to preserve their culture, so they should educate people, not play the proverbial race card.

filmfann's avatar

I suppose it is all in how it is approached. If you do it respectfully, how can it be racist?

Judi's avatar

I think that the 10 years I spent as a campfire Girl, honoring Indian culture, building my cerimonial gown, earning the beads to decorate it and studying the different Indian cultures gave me a deep respect for their plight and empathy for the injustice they suffered. Wearing our ceremonial gowns was a way of honoring their culture, not mocking it.

Jude's avatar

My g/f and I were at a bar, Saturday. Some guy was dressed up as a KKK member. As soon as he stepped out of the bar, he got into a fight.

OpryLeigh's avatar

Honestly, I feel like she has a bit of a stick up her arse after reading the first page of this blog and her self righteous attitude is a bit boring! I don’t find dressing as a Native American anymore racist (a word that is thrown around too loosely in my opinion) than dressing as a Viking. I’m all for educating people about native cultures, in fact I think it is necessary but I feel this girl is far too over protective of it.

tranquilsea's avatar

The more a culture is “around” the more opportunity there is to educate people. You can then deal with erroneous stereotypes and elucidate to your heart’s content.

It is my experience that the more defensive people get about their history the more other people try to avoid them. It’s rather counter productive although I understand that some histories are horrible.

It is always better to be inclusive.

WillWorkForChocolate's avatar

Sorry, but she’s a putz. It is in no way offensive, and it’s just plain stupid to claim that it is. I’m so sick of people crying “racism!” all the time over innocent bullshit.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

Yes, it is offensive. I agree with the article. Halloween isn’t about imitation as flattery or educating others, it’s about caricature. And one shouldn’t caricature black people or Native Americans or what have you. If you don’t get it, you’re most likely white and your ‘dumb American culture’ is a costume someplace in France – where they hate you and dress up like hicks for fun and I bet now you don’t think that’s about ‘exposing themselves to new cultures’. And what about stuff like this – harmless fun among the soulless? What if I dressed up like the Pope and Alex had the ‘I’m with Stupid’ t-shirt next to me? Oh and look here to notice a pattern. We, who are talking about this, aren’t ‘over-sensitive’ – we are different people of different races and abilities knowing that this isn’t innocent. And racism, as I understand it, is not just about obvious action, it’s also about microagression dressed up as fun.

SuperMouse's avatar

@Simone_De_Beauvoir lurve for the awesome links.

wundayatta's avatar

I’m insulted when people dress up as scientists. It’s anti-science. It’s a horrific act.

I’m insulted when people dress up as musicians. It insults the memory of Michael Jackson to see little kids dressed as him.

I’m insulted when people dress up as morons intelligent people. It just makes people think we aren’t real people.

I’m insulted when people dress up as the mentally ill. There’s nothing funny about being mentally ill. We don’t need any more stigma.

Nope. Really. I don’t give a shit. I’m sorry, but people should grow thicker skin. If you want respect, do something worthy of respect. Don’t expect it to be given to you for free, even if you have been discriminated against.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@wundayatta I have no idea what you’re talking about. People aren’t asking for respect when they say these costumes are offensive. The two things are separate. There are many who do something ‘worthy of respect’ who dislike their identities being boiled down to a costume you put on for laughs once a year. Whenever people say ‘grow thicker skin’, I say ‘your privilege is showing.’

deni's avatar

It’s racist if you’re racist. If you’re not, then it’s not. I really think it’s that simple. I don’t think many people dress up as Native Americans because of ANYTHING racial, I think that a lot of people just appreciate an awesome headdress and fancy shawls and that type of thing. Headdresses don’t EXIST in white American culture. The point of Halloween is to be something you’re not. I don’t see the problem, except that some people seem to want to turn everything into a personal insult (it seems to me thats what the girl on that blog is doing anyhow). But don’t get me wrong, if I were a Native American, I’d fucking hate white people. But, that’s another topic.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@deni So no one can identify a racist act unless the person doing it identifies it as such, for themselves? How many self-aware racists do you know, exactly? Just curious

deni's avatar

@Simone_De_Beauvoir That’s not what I mean. I just don’t think there’s any bad intentions when girls do it. I’m not sticking up for totally inaccurate slutty costumes, but I think it’d be a pretty difficult task to find a girl dressed up like a Native American that actually has anything against Native Americans. I mean, if you’re wearing a KKK costume, that is making a statement that can only be taken one way. A Native American….I think it’s entirely different. That girl is making a MOUNTAIN OUT OF A MOLE HILL, as they say. It’s just a costume. I think people like that only make themselves unhappy taking everything personally, being offended constantly. Let it go, laugh at yourself if you have to. Damn, white people are super easy to make fun of. We are little bitches, most of us. Who cares.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@deni The fact that people have no idea why they’re putting on these costumes and, in turn, completely defensive when it’s simply pointed out how it can be hurtful is another conversation, yes. I don’t think we can say of anything cultural that ‘it’s just that thing’ – everything has meaning.

iphigeneia's avatar

@Judi That situation sounds like a legitimate reason to wear Native American dress. If you took your ceremonial gown and wore it to a costume party, however, that would be inappropriate. Just curious, when you learned about Native American culture, were you taught by indigenous people?

@tranquilsea To your first point, people are appropriating Native American cultures right now, but when they are called out on their inaccuracies and their disrespectfulness, they don’t listen. It seems to me that it is the ones on the privileged side who are getting defensive. As for your second point, I agree, in a way, but I haven’t seen any evidence of Native American people being unwilling to educate others about their cultural heritage.

@wundayatta I do have a friend who feels hurt when people wear a “mentally ill person” costume (I believe the costume in question was a straightjacket). It’s true, it’s not something people should be laughing at.

@deni People can have perfectly kind-hearted intentions and still be racist. Just see the entire history of colonialism. The reason this blog is “making a mountain out of a mole hill” is that little things can make a big difference, especially when people don’t realise they are being influenced.

@Simone_De_Beauvoir lurve :)

deni's avatar

@iphigeneia How? That seems like an oxymoron. Kind-hearted intentions = racism? I just don’t get it. Explain it to me? (I am being serious, not cocky)

SuperMouse's avatar

Redpowerlady, (who was a Fluther regular until she had a baby and got crazy busy!) had this as her Facebook status recently: Just saw another adult dresses as an Indian at Fred Meyer’s. Our culture is so visually awesome people just want to mimic it but if I asked them to name a great Native leader currently would they be able to? Would they even know what tribe their costume mimics?

To me, this is the whole point; Native American culture is “visually awesome” but that doesn’t make it ok to co-opt it in order to look really bitchin at the office Halloween party. It reeks of disrespect for a people and their culture.

tranquilsea's avatar

@iphigeneia I think that the more times people have to face different cultures the more times they have to gain a good understanding of them. Their first reaction may very well be ignorance but if you can respond with understanding and the correct information then they will hopefully take that away with them. Perhaps they’ll never ponder what they’ve learned but perhaps they will. I really believe that if one wants to effect change then one has to try.

Dances_with_Werewolves's avatar

As you’ve been told before, cultural appropriation is bad. One of the biggest problems indigenous populations face today is that we are treated like some homogenous group of people who only exist in the past. You think it’s respectful to say how “cool” you think our culture is, but you don’t really understand what you’re doing.

Despite all the answers trying to be clever above, dressing up as a Native American is not the same as dressing up like a geisha. Why? Because no one dresses up as a geisha and says “I’m a Japanese person!” They say, “I’m a geisha.” They recognize that they are imitating a specific element of a population that has a distinctive costume.

Putting a headdress on and saying “I’m a Native American” disrespects the fact that there are over 500 distinct indigenous American tribes and cultures in the United States alone. It also disrespects that there are still indigenous Americans around (few of whom, if any, wear anything like the “Native American” costumes you see).

It’s the same problem you ran into when asking that question about medicine names. First, you assumed that all indigenous tribes had such things—once again, painting all of us with the same broad brush as if we’re a homogenized group. Second, you invited everyone to treat what is supposed to be a sacred and private element of certain cultures like it’s a dress-up game. Treating us like the novelty-of-the-month is offensive, no matter how much “fun” you might think it is.

YARNLADY's avatar

I don’t believe dressing in a stereotype of anyone is the same thing as disrespecting their culture. As far as Native American is concerned, we ware the same clothes as everyone else does, and we haven’t worn feather or headdresses for at least 100 years.

Most people realize there were over 100 separate Nations in this country when it was discovered by the Europeans, and each had their own culture. We have assimilated, and with the proper education in the schools, the past will be remembered, which is all that matters.

Dances_with_Werewolves's avatar

@YARNLADY Unfortunately, I think a lot of people don’t realize how many distinct groups of indigenous peoples there once were and still are. I still hear the whole “you can’t complain, you lost the war” routine at least three times a year (usually when I’m not even complaining about anything). My question is always “which war?” Because once you count up the number of wars the US admits to having waged against indigenous Americans, it turns out that they’d have to have been fighting about 50 Nations at a time for this to make any sense.

People really seem to think that there was one single “Injun Nation” that fought and lost against the United States of America and that there exists somewhere a peace treaty in which we gave up all of our land rights. This is in stark contrast to the fact that most of the treaties between indigenous groups and the United States actually grant us rights that the US has never honored despite the US Constitution itself declaring treaties to be the supreme law of the land.

Dances_with_Werewolves's avatar

I want to note that I’m not really angry about this or anything. I just think it’s important to be firm and clear that some things really aren’t okay. There are still moral standards in the world, no matter who would prefer we let them all slide.

YARNLADY's avatar

@Dances_with_Werewolves Which is why I stress the importance of education. There are still people who think stereotypes about women (helpless, etc) are true, and I think it is hilarious when men dress up as women in fun (I’m not talking cross-dressers here).

Dances_with_Werewolves's avatar

@YARNLADY I agree that education is helpful, but not all of us are into total assimilation. I happen to think it is inevitable, but I don’t think we should let ourselves become merely objects of the past. We still exist, and it would be nice to see some recognition of this. As it is, we’re often treated like fictional characters. I really like the status from Redpowerlady that @SuperMouse posted.

Ron_C's avatar

Why should it be. I think that Native Americans were pretty cool. What next, a vampire lobby agitating against Halloween and movie costumes? This is just a politically correct attack on fun. Now wouldn’t suggest that a husband and wife dress up as a KKK member and slave but some things you just have to let go.

Dances_with_Werewolves's avatar

@Ron_C Why wouldn’t be? How about reading any of the responses about why it is that have already been given? You are not respecting me by dressing up as a mockery of my culture and saying “look at me, I’m a scary Indian!” This issue is related to that of indigenous Americans as mascots: we are not animals to be appropriated for use as a symbol, and we are not a fictional species that only exists in horror films. We are real people with diverse backgrounds. The costumes that people dress up in for Halloween are the equivalent of blackface, not vampires.

Ron_C's avatar

@Dances_with_Werewolves I’m an old guy that played cowboys and Indians what he was a kid. I’m also from the East and never met a Native American.

I do know that Jefferson tried to model his constitution after what he saw in the Iroquois Nation. I figure that dressing up as American Heroes is a good thing for kids.

They dress up as Doctors, Firemen, soldiers (from many eras), and movie characters.

I am an “Lone Ranger: fan and thought Tonto was a pretty cool guy. I was a little kid and wouldn’t know a stereotype if it slapped me in the face. I think you read too much into things. By the way, our high school football team is called the Dutchmen and our local Dutch Descendants do not take offense.

whitetigress's avatar

@Ron_C I can see where you are coming from. I can also see where @Dances_with_Werewolves is coming from. I think maybe one day we will all agree we are living in our own time, and we should all kind of agree to make a new modern culture, whether we like it or not it is happening outside, perhaps we should all participate and make our own mark.

deni's avatar

@Dances_with_Werewolves Seriously? I really don’t think anybody thinks that Native Americans are “a FICTIONAL SPECIES that only exists in horror films”....thats almost laughable. I’ve never seen a horror film with a Native American in it. I think it boils down to, anything can offend you if you let it.

Ron_C's avatar

@whitetigress ” we should all kind of agree to make a new modern culture, whether we like it or not it is happening outside, perhaps we should all participate and make our own mark.” I couldn’t agree more. Maybe now is the time for old Navy guys to make there mark before we all croak.

Dances_with_Werewolves's avatar

@Ron_C I can’t speak for your local Dutch descendants, but it’s a lot easier not to be offended when you haven’t been systematically oppressed and when you’re not being appropriated because of an association with savagery (which is the origin of most uses of Native Americans as sports mascots). Also, very few people—if any—are dressing up as Native Americans because they think of them as American heroes. That’s a retroactive, and fraudulent, justification. @whitetigress has admitted, in his various incarnations, that the reason he is interested is because of a perceived exoticism, and it is to his reasons that I am responding.

@deni Yes, it is laughable. That’s why I was ridiculing the comparison of my people to vampires. And my main point is not about offensiveness. It’s about the cultural damage that appropriation causes.

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