Even worse, despite a long-running debate about racism and cultural appropriation, often prompted by backlash against celebrities and politicians for donning offensive costumes, people continue to wear such costumes.
Last Halloween, Ames spotted a photo on Instagram of a girl dressed as a Native American with a bullet in her forehead. She immediately reported it to the social media platform and had it removed.
“They blatantly take certain aspects of our culture, race, religion, and use it for their advantage and ignore the people living it,” said Ames, co-president of the American Indian Student Association at Minnesota State University Moorhead.
But beyond simply calling out such behavior, some cultural experts advise, education and empathy are in order. Some colleges are going even further, offering training and workshops.
“Good people sometimes make bad decisions. What we try to do is turn those bad decisions around. We’re not shaming, we’re guiding,” said Jered Pigeon, director of diversity and inclusion at Ames’s school, which holds workshops on cultural appropriation.
Seeing that princess costume made Ames angry, and then embarrassed.
“Non-Natives can ‘pretend’ to be Native for one day of the year, and it’s all the ‘cute’ or ‘sexy’ parts of being Native, but there are so many people who can’t just put on or take off the costume, they have to live with all the other aspects of being born Native,” said Ames, 22, who is majoring in sustainability and cultural anthropology.
Ohio University launched a poster campaign in 2011 called “We’re a Culture, Not a Costume.” Other schools have since opted in, including the University of Colorado Boulder, the University of Oregon and the University of Denver, which expanded the posters into a training program through its housing and residential education department.
“If you say you can’t wear this, you’re shutting down the opportunity for conversation, versus if you say shouldn’t, you can expand on why and link it to a plethora of history,” said Rajhon White, resident director at the University of Denver. “Another huge piece is we encourage students to do their homework, do their research, because we live in a time where you can Google anything. You shouldn’t be reliant on those marginalized to explain. That work should be done by the person seeking that knowledge.”
So far, students seem receptive. A year and a half ago, there was an incident involving a student in blackface on the social media platform Yik Yak. Students did comment on the photo, but instead of outright shaming, they wanted to sit down to talk to the offender about his choice, said Ebenezer Yebuah, associate director of residential education at the university.
“Some of the students never interacted with diversity in general,” said Angelica Granados, a 20-year-old first-generation Mexican American student and second-year resident adviser who has participated in several role-playing workshops. “I really appreciate the university working toward everyone feeling included.”
A growing trend among music festival attendees to wear Native American headdress also has come under scrutiny, leading one festival in San Francisco, Outside Lands, to ban the practice. And, most recently, country singer Kacey Musgraves sparked outrage among the Asian American community both for combining Indian and Vietnamese traditional costumes and for hypersexualizing the look.
“Ask yourself the question, does the culture you’re imitating have a history of oppression? Are you benefiting from borrowing from the culture? Are you able to remove something when you get tired of it and return to a privileged culture when others can’t?” said Moody-Ramirez, director of American studies at Baylor University in Waco, Tex.
But it’s not always about prohibiting others from participating in different cultures. Anhlan Nguyen wasn’t upset that Musgraves wore the Vietnamese dress, just that she did it wrong. The singer wore the Vietnamese ao dai, a traditional dress that includes a high-collared tunic with pants, but she opted to skip the bottom.
“I’m her fan and would have been proud to show off her dress,” said Nguyen, co-chairwoman of the Vietnamese Culture and Science Association in Houston. “But without the pants, and the way she posed, leads to the indication of promoting sexuality. For Asian girls, people exploited Asians for their [perceived] submissive attitude, and maybe she didn’t have this intention, but it unfortunately reminded us a lot of those stereotypes.”
Nguyen helps coordinate Vietnamese events in Houston, where children of different backgrounds wear the same Vietnamese dress that Musgraves wore, but with pants included.
“I would be so happy to see other people wear my cultural costume,” Nguyen said. “America would not be America without combining cultures. People should not forget — all these people are from all different parts of the world.”
The responsibility of explaining the significance of any cultural expression or artifact often falls on the shoulders of the offended party. It can be burdensome. But it’s also important to be included in the conversation, said Granados, who is majoring in political science and Spanish, with a minor in critical race and ethnic studies. Previously, cultural training wasn’t led by students of color at her school, so they suggested they lead instead.
“I don’t want to be the one always educating people, but if we don’t, we can’t get mad,” Granados said.