Halloween is the season most synonymous with cultural appropriation. Annually, Native people and allies of Native folks find themselves in uncomfortable situations where they are forced to address racially and culturally insensitive Halloween costumes either on social media or in person.
Facilitating a conversation about the inappropriateness of a Halloween costume is notoriously difficult. In a perfect world, members of marginalized populations would not be responsible for opening the dialogue about cultural appropriation. Moreover, individuals wearing racist costumes would be open to understanding why their costumes are offensive. The process of drawing attention to cultural appropriation would be done in a calm, and professional manner. The interaction would end with an upbeat musical song-and-dance number, and the costume would be burned in a fire pit. Again, in a perfect world, these conversations would go smoothly.
Unfortunately, we do not live in a perfect world. This story is about the time when my friends and I failed at having a conversation about cultural appropriation with a fake-headdress-wearing frat bro.
It was early October, and several of my fellow American Indian Studies (AIS) graduate students decided to go out to dinner at a trendy bar. During dinner, we each shared more about our backgrounds and what brought each of us to the AIS program. Loud cheers from a group of fraternity brothers interrupted our conversation. As the group poured into the bar, we notice one frat bro wearing a plastic headdress, prancing around the bar to receive high-fives from other patrons, and make tomahawk-chopping motions with his arm. I would liken the scene to watching the Chief Illiniwek mascot frolic around before a University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign basketball game.
We took a few moments to collect ourselves, and then discussed what we should do? Should we engage? Should we leave? We all agreed that to say nothing felt wrong—how could we claim to care about Native issues but say nothing when confronted with blatant racism. To us, saying nothing felt like we were condoning cultural appropriation. One of our group members volunteered to speak with the headdress wearing frat bro to see if she could reason with him to remove the headdress. Unsurprisingly, as she spoke with him he became defensive saying something to the effect that he was Cherokee and it was therefore okay for him to wear a headdress wherever he’d like. Another female graduate student approached the frat bro. Again, he refused to remove the headdress. Soon after, one thing led to another and the fake headdress was snatched off of the frat bro’s head.
Our attempt at a rich dialogue about cultural appropriation devolved into a childish game of keep away featuring a handful of plastic feathers. The spectacle of three women nervously tossing around a fake headdress, and a frat bro stumbling around the bar to retrieve it, called the attention of the bar’s security team. An African American bouncer approached us about the commotion. We proceeded to discuss the offensiveness of the fake headdress. He agreed that the headdress was completely inappropriate. However, we were asked to return the remaining bits of the headdress and leave. We handed the mangled shards of plastic to the frat bro (who excited placed it back on his head) and we left.
The point of this story is not that my fellow graduate students or myself handled the presence of the fake headdress in the best possible manner. If anything, I think that we handled it fairly terribly (although we tried our best). The take away from this story is that we mustered the courage to speak up instead of suffering in silence—which is half of the battle. However, I would also like to recognize our privilege of safety during this interaction. On a whole, we felt safe enough to confront this man—which is a luxury that not many women, let alone Native women are afforded.
Christie Poitra holds a Ph.D. in Educational Policy from Michigan State University.