Put the Pocahontas back on the rack

0 Posted by - October 27, 2011 - Blog, Policy

A recent article on CBC.ca reports that a campaign is underway to educate people in the US and Canada on the harms brought by “ethnic costumes” worn at Halloween. Costumes that crudely reflect already crude stereotypes of Arabs, Asians, Africans and others have been worn by children and adults with zeal and irony for many years, so it’s refreshing that an Ohio student group has stirred things up with a new poster campaign designed to spread awareness and put a stop to the mockery. The group is called STARS – Students Teaching About Racism in Society, and their new campaign is getting the attention it deserves.

Getting attention elsewhere, students in Montreal recently caused their own controversy by showing up in public costumed in black face, a racist technique dating from vaudeville and 1950s television where white people painted their faces pitch black, accentuated their lips, widened their eyes, and goofed off like the perceived clueless black folk of the time. The practice eventually met its demise (at least in popular media) thanks to concerted efforts by civil rights and anti-racist groups, forcing racist stereotypes in popular culture to find other, often more nuanced ways, to persist.

One such way occurs every Halloween when both kids and adults parade about dressed as Nubian princesses, Muslim suicide bombers, First Nations medicine men, Geishas and other caricatures plucked from the ethnic stereotype bin. It’s not surprising that this practice has migrated from film and television and manifested as dress-up – as consumers of popular culture we are in a perpetual cycle of homage, recycling, subverting, and creating, all the while using the raw material presented to us on screen. One only needs to look for the millions of tiny humanoids masquerading as one of many Disney characters this year to see the way popular culture perpetuates itself. But wait, is that a costume paying homage to that oh-so sexualized and racist rendering of the historic figure Pocahontas? Why yes it is.

The first step to eradicating racism is education, and of course we’ve come a long way in this department. But you wouldn’t know it from reading the comments on the CBC story. It seems the majority of people who could be bothered to take the time to comment think this is a political correctness-gone-too-far issue. Some are equating the ethnic stereotype costume-wearing with dressing up as police, doctors, and firefighters with a “What’s next?” exasperation. This is race ignorance writ large, and judging from the CBC poll on the issue the majority are still languishing in the good old 1950s.

Dressing up as a racial or ethnic stereotype is not the same as dressing up as a police officer or a nurse. This is about identity and oppression. When people must spend their lives subjugated because they do not belong to the dominant culture or ethnicity, they are in a daily battle to maintain their identity as they wish it to be formed, not as a hostile society has decided it should be or look like. As one scholar has put it – “We weren’t ‘coloured women’ until we arrived in America, then we became such.”

Donning racial stereotype costumes perpetuates narrowly-defined and popularly-propagated subjugated identities. Not only does it make people feel awful to see the denigrated way others see them (and/or their culture) but it reinforces an acquiescence of harmful stereotypes that can take years and years to undo. As a society we seem to agree that dressing up in black face is more than bad taste – it’s hurtful to others. Can’t we also come to the same conclusion about ethnic stereotype costumes worn at Halloween? Maybe then the CBC would feel inclined to remove the single quotation marks around the adjective racist as it appears in the article’s headline.

To vote in the CBC poll on whether you think the costumes are problematic or not, go here.

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