‘My Culture Is Not a Costume’

Creating programs to educate students about the dangers of culturally insensitive Halloween costumes.

October 29, 2021
 
Mark Skalny
Rozin Kiona Herrera wears a ribbon shirt, which is a visual symbol of Native pride.

Earlier this month, Scottsdale Community College hired a professional photographer to take photos of Indigenous students, staff and faculty in their native dress. One image shows student Rozin Kiona Herrera wearing a men’s ribbon shirt, a cotton or linen shirt with colorful ribbons appliquéd or sewn into the seams, which is a symbol of Native pride. In another photo, student Diondra Descheenie wears traditional Navajo woman’s outfit, consisting of moccasins, a pleated velvet or cotton skirt, a matching long-sleeve blouse, a concho or sash belt, and jewelry.

The photos, displayed online, are part of the Arizona college’s annual “My Culture Is Not a Costume” campaign, designed in part to teach students how to dress with cultural sensitivity when they celebrate Halloween. Located on the land of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, the institution has deep ties to the local population.

“​​I think our big thing is, and I was trying to share this not just with staff but our students, how can we educate people?” said Ana Cuddington, the college’s American Indian director and a member of the Akimel O’otham tribe Gila River Indian Community. “There are a lot of people that do know, but this is our opportunity to raise awareness regarding an issue that is important to our students.”

The campaign started at SCC in 2015, Cuddington said, and it has grown to include students from the Indigenous Student Association, who work with the college’s marketing team to highlight their own heritage through the photographs of students in their traditional wardrobe. In the past, the group has displayed photos in the campus library and encouraged faculty to take their classes to see them.

SCC will keep its campaign online through November for Native American Heritage Month, Cuddington said, noting that she hopes to broaden its reach.

“This year, we’re just trying to figure out how we can still raise awareness and bring it not just to SCC but to our whole Maricopa community colleges,” Cuddington said. “We’ve been outreaching to share that information.”

Eric Sells, marketing and public relations manager for SCC, said the topic is important not just to students, but to the greater community -- especially members of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community.

“As this program and campaign have built over the years, we’ve seen a lot of opportunity to continue to further educate the public community on this,” Sells said.

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The “My Culture Is Not a Costume” campaign began in 2011 at Ohio University, where students hung different posters around campus to show how marginalized groups were hurt and offended by people wearing Indigenous headdresses, Mexican sombreros, blackface and more as costumes. On its website, SCC states that regardless of the intention, wearing a costume that portrays another culture is cultural appropriation and perpetuates harmful stereotypes.

Cuddington said that while she has never had to call someone out for an inappropriate Halloween costume, she knows students who have. The campaign also serves to educate students on how to confront others who wear inappropriate costumes, she said.

“Sometimes it will be a difficult conversation, and other times, people will own it and just apologize,” Cuddington said. “Whether they take it off right then is something they have to decide. But that’s my hope, is that we’re also educating our students in having those hard conversations.”

Cuddington hopes to expand the “My Culture Is Not a Costume” campaign to include more ethnicities and to involve more faculty and staff in different campus offices.

“Across universities and colleges, I believe they’re trying to bring awareness to the campuses, because we know so many people don’t know,” she said. “A lot of it is just ignorance -- they’ve never experienced it before -- they just don’t know. So many people have not ever met a Native American.”

But knowing members of another racial or ethnic group doesn’t necessarily preclude insensitive costumes. Students at several institutions -- including Dartmouth College and Fairfield University -- have run into trouble for staging “ghetto”-themed off-campus parties, where students wore brown and black makeup and “perpetuated racial stereotypes that have no place in our community,” said former Fairfield University president Reverend Jeffrey P. von Arx.

Many institutions aim to educate students on how to dress for Halloween. The University of Colorado at Boulder, the University of Oregon and the University of Denver have implemented resources online to educate students on inappropriate costumes.

At the University of Northern Colorado, Tobias Guzmán, interim vice president of student affairs and vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion, said there’s a need for education and awareness on insensitive Halloween costumes.

Guzmán’s office works to create informational sessions to educate students on cultural appropriation -- most recently a session co-hosted by university’s psychological services department for faculty and staff to talk about what cultural appropriation is and how to address it in the classroom. Additionally, he said, resident assistants hang informational fliers about cultural appropriation around different dorm areas for students. The leaders of multiple student clubs also talk with their peers about inappropriate Halloween costumes, Guzmán said.

“​​Having the words and the language to be able to talk through cultural appropriation, as opposed to just letting it happen, is important, whether that’s in the personal realm or whether that’s in the classroom,” Guzmán said.

And the university community has been receptive to these efforts. Guzmán noted he’s seen fewer culturally insensitive costumes, and he says students are more willing than in the past to call out students who do wear them -- a development he attributes to the Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of George Floyd.

Like Cuddington, Guzmán said a main goal of these education efforts is to help students talk to others who are wearing inappropriate costumes.

“Our goal is for them to get the idea of what the ‘why’ is, as opposed to clobbering people and saying, ‘You’re racist’ or ‘You’re being sexist,’” Guzmán said. “Because the behavior doesn’t necessarily change. When we clobber people with that terminology, we need to help people understand why dressing up as an Indigenous person is not appropriate.”

Efforts to educate students about cultural appropriation during Halloween have gone awry. In 2015, Yale University’s Intercultural Affairs Committee sent an email advising students to avoid culturally insensitive costumes. That prompted an associate head of one of Yale’s residential colleges to respond with a mass email of her own, arguing that the advice demonstrated a lack of faith in “young people’s capacity to exercise self-censure.” Her email fueled a month of protests on campus, with hundreds of students calling for the employee’s dismissal. In December 2015, several dozen Yale faculty members issued an open letter in support of free speech and the employee.

Cuddington said the work SCC is doing is important because it impacts the whole community -- not just the Indigenous students on SCC’s campus.

“We’re raising awareness and trying to have people understand why it’s a sensitive topic for not just us, but any marginalized group, that it’s just not appropriate,” Cuddington said. “And we’re putting it out there so people are aware as they’re choosing their costumes.”

Guzmán said while there is some criticism around the topic of cultural appropriation being mistaken for political correctness, it’s too important a topic to ignore.

“Some people are saying we’re taking the fun out of Halloween,” Guzmán said. “But really, this is what I believe is part of an inclusive campus and is where we talk about these issues and not shy away from them, and ultimately bring awareness and education around something that can actually be pretty hurtful.”

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