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How To Find The Perfect And Appropriate Halloween Costume

When selecting a Halloween costume, there are a lot of questions to consider. What Disney character is cool to be as a college student? Should I go for the scary look? Or will I end up like Cady Heron in Mean Girls? Will I still be able to eat and drink with a mask on?

Another important question that we sometimes forget to ask is: Does this costume offend anyone? Now, it can be tempting to roll our eyes or shrug off the notion that a simple costume can be offensive. It can be tempting to view the idea of cultural appropriation simply as political correctness gone far too far. However, what we choose to wear matters and the costume we select has consequences.

What do Victoria’s Secret models, Pharrell Williams, Nicki Minaj, and Britain’s Got Talent winner Susan Boyle have in common? They each have inappropriately worn a Native American headdress. Halloween is a time when many people suddenly decide that they want to be a Native American. You may be asking, “What’s the big deal?”

Native American headdresses are worn for ceremonial purposes and carry spiritual and personal significance. In many tribes, people gain a feather from a rare bird after achieving a significant life accomplishment. The full headdresses we see are symbols of years of personal and spiritual growth. Thus, the very act of buying a headdress is inappropriate and culturally inaccurate. Due to the inaccuracies common in cultural costumes, people of the particular culture may feel trivialized, objectified, and hurt.

Dressing up as a racial or cultural group perpetuates stereotypes. It teaches people that one image is representative of all people in that group. Today, there are 567 federally recognized tribes within the borders of the U.S. Each tribe has their own cultural practices, just as each person of a cultural or racial group has their individual way of living and seeing the world.

Now, you may be thinking, “I agree, but what do I do when I see someone wearing something that is offensive?” We have outlined some tips for you.

First: If someone is wearing something disrespectful, know that you are allowed to be offended by it even if you do not yourself identify as a member of that particular group of people.

Second: Do not attack anyone. Think about how you would like to be treated if you were wearing something offensive. We all have offended people before. We are human. Many of our mistakes happen as a result of well-intentioned ignorance.

Third: Approach the person in the costume by being kind and by asking open-ended “what” and “how” questions. Avoid making assumptions about the person’s knowledge, character, or intentions. The conversation can start with a question as easy as, “What are you dressed as?”

Fourth: Be humble, but share your knowledge and express that the costume is offensive. You can even provide an example of a time when you accidentally offended a person of another culture.

Fifth: Empower the person to learn about the culture and invite them to ask you questions, if you have knowledge in this area.

Lastly, if you are the one hosting a party, be proactive by making a simple note in the Facebook event description or in your text to say, “Please no culturally inappropriate costumes.”

While choosing a costume may feel like a small decision, our choices matter. We all have the power to choose to respect ourselves and others by treating everyone with dignity – and maybe even a piece of candy or two on such a holiday.

The Student Society for Indigenous Knowledge is a club at Penn State open to all students. We educate ourselves and others about culture, history, and current issues surrounding Native American tribes and indigenous communities around the world.

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