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What a Crest Toothpaste Commercial Can Teach Us About Racism

A toothpaste commercial shows a kid in an Indian costume in among the pretend monsters, robots, and animals -- what's wrong with this picture?
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In the past couple of weeks, ICTMN has published a number of stories about the harmful effects of American Indian Halloween costumes, and we're also tracking the controversy over Native sports mascots, particularly with our coverage of the Washington Redskins. Many readers see costumes and mascots as a big deal; others tell us to lighten up. They say it's "just a costume" or "just a mascot." This Halloween-themed Crest commercial blipped onto our radar, and it's a very clear illustration of what, exactly, the big deal is when it comes to costumes and mascots.

There are at least 12 children wearing costumes in this video. We'll run down the list, saving the important one for last:

Triceratops: A dinosaur that went extinct 65 million years ago.
Ninja: A master of matial arts from feudal Japan. Ninjas ceased to exist sometime in the 17th century.
Cow: A farm animal.
Bumblebee: An insect.
Skeleton: The human skeletal system.
Flower: A plant.
Werewolf: A fictional monster.
Boxer: An athlete.
Goth princess (?): A young lady wearing ghostly white makeup, and dressed in a princess outfit with spiky gloves and headband (forgive us, we're not really sure what this one is).
Space Alien: A fictional inhabitant of another planet.
Robot: A humanoid machine with artificial intelligence.
Chick: A baby chicken.
American Indian: A race of people.

What's wrong with this picture? All but one of the kids are dressed as things that are imaginary, or historical (if not extinct), or whimsical, or generic. Just one of them is attired as a stand-in for a living people -- a living people who are still living, despite the U.S. government's efforts to kill them off. And yes, some of these people do, today, wear a feather headdress or paint their faces in ceremonial gatherings, although many do not.

Kids look cute dressed as bumblebees, or robots, or ninjas, and there's little danger that their fertile minds will form opinions about these things they will carry into adulthood. But what of the little Indian? What does his costume teach? If this is what an Indian looks like, does that define, for children, what all Indians are? Can an Indian be a lawyer? Do Indians live in houses? Do Indians speak proper English, drive cars, or even wear underwear? (And how come he doesn't have a dead crow on his head like in the movie?) 

It's simply irresponsible to take a diverse and modern population -- a whole race -- and sum it up in a cartoony dime-store costume for a seven-year-old child. Racism, most often, starts at home, and while allowing a kid to dress as "an Indian" seems less controversial than allowing a kid to dress as "an African American" or "an Asian," it's the same thing. Parents (and the people at Crest toothpaste) might not feel they are maliciously reducing Native Americans to a stereotype -- but malice or not, it's exactly what they are doing when they permit such a costume, and it's an insensitivity about race they're instilling in the young.

There's a reason why so many Americans struggle to see the racism that American Indians feel on a daily basis: It's always been there. It's been there since we were all kids. We grew up with it.

Halloween 2013 is in the books, but there's always next year. Why not simply leave the plastic-wrapped Indian costume on the drugstore rack and pick something else -- an animal, a superhero, a monster, a profession? If people were to stop buying Indian costumes, perhaps manufacturers would stop making them.