Disney’s Pocahontas, alongside historical depictions of the Powhatan girl, Matoaka.

Hello, everyone! How’s your week going? Are you thinking about Halloween yet? I am… and I have some #ThursdayThoughts regarding costumes and cultures.

Cultural appropriation has become more of a hot-button issue now that people of color have gained access to the internet, where our voices can now be heard more by our own accord instead of waiting for white allies to pass the mic.

This Monday was Indigenous Peoples’ Day, which makes it the perfect time to discuss a particular brand of appropriation: those tacky “Indian” outfits being sold at costume stores. Native Americans (and Indigenous Peoples from around the world) have repeatedly spoken out against their cultures being reduced to mere flights of fancy that can be donned and doffed at will.

Costumes don’t bring with them the systemic oppression, vulnerability, and oppression that come with appearing Native, and they can be taken off at the end of the day — real First Nations folks can’t just take off their identities to relieve the crushing weight of injustice. Real First Nations folks have already had to endure years of slaughter and forced assimilation, and they are still told by society that they are worthless.

These costumes make a mockery of often sacred ceremonial wear, combining the ornaments of different tribes and traditions without distinction; stealing patterns and replicating them with cheaply-made fabrics that were manufactured in a sweatshop; disregarding the rituals, traditions, ceremonies, and occasions for which such outfits would be properly worn; and cutting all the Indigenous Peoples whose identities they’re stealing from entirely out of the profits.

If that’s not racist, if that’s not a cog in the machine guaranteeing that such violently oppressed people are made to be taken as mere jokes instead of fully realized beings with legacies and histories of their own, then I can’t possibly tell you what is. It’s part of many reasons why the response to Columbus Day has been to reclaim Native histories through Indigenous Peoples’ Day and revised textbooks that clarify what White historians have obscured. As of late, there’s been a renewed, concerted effort to commemorate the many lives lost to the centuries-long genocide that started in 1492 (in the Americas).

Let’s take a specific example: Pocahontas. The story of the First Nations girl we have come to call “Pocahontas” is a prime (and literal!) example of the “Disneyfication” trope, perhaps the most dramatic of them all since it came from a real person’s story.

So, if you don’t know by now, the narrative Disney portrays is almost entirely false. First of all, her name was Matoaka, and “Pocahontas” was a pet name from her family that meant something along the lines of “spoiled kid.” She was renamed “Rebecca” after marrying John Rolfe. After her untimely death, John Smith made up the whole story that Roy Disney adapted to film because he was fascinated with (fetishized) her and she rejected his advances. History has almost completely erased the name of this Powhatan child who was stolen from her family, taken prisoner, forced into a child marriage, made a mockery of, harassed, and killed by a “New World” disease she never would have contracted otherwise.

The Powhatan nation has long been ashamed of the Disney animated feature that ignores all historical accuracy in favor of turning a poor girl’s imprisonment into yet another noble savage narrative. It does them no favors — it’s dehumanizing and romanticizes the destruction of Matoaka’s life. Yet it’s considered a light and fluffy children’s movie and a great costume choice for Halloween.

If art existed in a vacuum and both didn’t draw on and influence real people and real choices, Pocahontas would be an absolutely wonderful film, with amazing musical compositions and a beautiful color scheme. It would be a movie with a lot of heart, one of the jewels of animation — and indeed, some view it as such. But to be uncritical of such works does real harm to real people.

Sure, one can enjoy such a piece — no one’s stopping you from watching it on Netflix — but it is important to acknowledge that it may be harmful and perpetuate dangerous stereotypes. There are many critical lenses through which we view media because art imitates life and life imitates art — sociologists, communication experts, scientists, and more know that media has direct influences on how we see and engage with the world. You must be conscious in your consumption. If you don’t see how wearing a Pocahontas costume might be problematic after knowing the history behind the movie, you need to reexamine how you engage with media.

Instead of disrespecting marginalized identities and contributing to stereotypes that encourage violence against already vulnerable people, here are a variety of timely costumes for Halloween 2017, according to Buzzfeed:

Here, too, are some current, culturally relevant suggestions from yours truly:

This is only a sample of the millions of options available to you. Now that you know #CultureIsNotACostume, go make some good choices today. Have a happy and safe Halloween, everyone! I’ll trade you for half your trick-or-treating bounty…

Blessing Ajaero

Written by

Writer, singer, etc. Nigerian. Black. Website: https://blessingajaero.com. Support my work: https://bit.ly/PayBlAjaero & http://patreon.com/OpenHeartMedia.

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