So You Wanna Be a PocaHottie

With All Hallows’ Eve drawing near, newsfeeds everywhere have inevitably blown up with talk about racist costumes and those two words every carefree Halloween partygoer who just wants to get drunk hates to see: cultural appropriation.

So what is cultural appropriation, anyways?

In the most simplest sense it can be described as when someone adopts aspects of a culture that’s not their own. But there’s a much deeper understanding of cultural appropriation and it refers to the power dynamic between a dominant culture and the group that has been systematically oppressed by the dominant culture.

Why is cultural appropriation bad?

First of all, it perpetuates racism and xenophobia by enabling people to embrace the culture but remain prejudiced against the members of that culture.

An example of this is enjoying authentic Indian food and patronizing Indian owned restaurants, but continuing to hold an attitude that reinforces stereotypes. Another example is how black hairstyles have been mocked and degraded but as soon as a white celebrity or model wears one, all of a sudden it’s “trendy” or “edgy”, or sometimes even “new”.

Secondly, cultural appropriation spreads misinformation about marginalized groups.

Let’s just take a look at Pocahontas, shall we? Pocahontas, otherwise known as Matoaka, was 17 when she was captured by the English and held for ransom. There are some historical discrepancies. She is said to have “converted” to Christianity during her time in captivity, changing her name to Rebecca and then later marrying tobacco planter, John Rolfe. However, Chief Roy Crazy Horse of the Powhatan Nation claimed that Matoaka agreed to marry Rolfe as a condition of her release and it was then that she took the name Rebecca. In any case, it is known that her husband John Rolfe presented her to society as a “civilized savage” in hopes of stimulating investment in Jamestown. She died three years after her marriage. Correlation does not equal causation, but in my opinion that speaks for itself. So the romanticized Disney version of Pocahontas that everyone is familiar with – said to have happened in 1607, when Pocahontas would’ve been 10 – likely never even occurred, as John Smith made no mention of it in his 1608 account and first relates the story of “being saved from execution” 9 years after it supposedly happened.

Thirdly, it trivializes history.

It’s like when the NFL team, the Redskins, tried to defend their name by saying it “honoured Native Americans”. But the term “redskins” comes from the time colonial and government states paid white men to kill Native Americans and bring back their scalps for proof of their “kill”.

I guess I missed the part where that honours Native Americans.

You see, the people defending the name obviously think of a native warrior as a powerful symbol. But the fact remains that the dominant culture they’re a part of has committed horrible crimes against Native Americans and continues to marginalize them.

That’s cultural appropriation.

You may be thinking, “But I actually admire ______ culture and I don’t think dressing up like them for Halloween is offensive at all.”

In our culture there are restricted symbols which can’t be legitimately possessed without earning them, ex. educational degrees, military medals, awards representing achievement, etc., and if they are imitated (like in the case of a medical degree) can face criminal charges. There are also restricted symbols in other cultures that should be likewise respected.

An example of such is the headdress found in various Plains nations, and they are only worn by those who have earned them.

If one admires a culture, it’s reasonable to think they would respectfully learn more about it and in a meaningful way, too. It’s not always evident what is restricted and what isn’t, what with all the misinformation and stereotypes, but it’s okay to ask someone from that culture. If people from that culture tell you something is disrespectful though, dismissing their concerns because you don’t agree with them is not indicative of a genuine desire to learn about a culture one claims to admire.

Now let’s talk about some common costume themes we see out there every year:

Sexy Geisha, Sexy Gypsy, Sexy Señorita, and PocaHottie

I’m all for women expressing their sexuality in whatever way they wish, but I do take issue with the sexualization of minorities and I’ll tell you why:

  • It perpetuates the image that Asian women are submissive sexual objects and also perpetuates the consequences of that image – white men actually expect them to be an embodiment of that stereotype.
  • Harassment of Roma is well documented and ongoing.
  • There’s an epidemic of violence against women in Mexico, with occurrences like “pleasure kidnappings” and women leaving their homes, never to return.
  • First Nations women are in much the same situation; only now are we having a proper inquiry to the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in Canada.

So as sexy as it sometimes is to pretend to be something that you’re not, perpetuating stereotypes that victimize marginalized women by wearing a costume you can take off at the end of the night is not the best idea. They can’t take off the costume; the stigma stays.

Not to mention authentic traditional dress is so much more beautiful and alluring than the Westernized “sexy” versions, anyways.

Some of you may be wondering if it would be racist for someone to dress up as a “redneck” or “hillbilly”. Short answer, no.

Two rules of thumb keeps it easy this Halloween:

  1. It’s not racist or cultural appropriation to wear a costume from an extinct or dominant culture.
  2. It’s not okay to make a costume out of a culture that’s currently being oppressed. That’s kind of like pouring salt in the wound.

———–

Check out Podcast Episode 3 for a lively and diversely opinionated discussion about cultural appropriation between all four cast members. We also introduce some fun new segments!

Also, please feel free to leave a comment. Respectful conversation is encouraged!

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3 thoughts on “So You Wanna Be a PocaHottie

  1. “It’s not racist or cultural appropriation to wear a costume from an extinct or dominant culture.” So this means it would be perfectly fine for a Mexican, Roma, native American, east Indian, etc to dress up as a sexy Mountie or a sexy hockey player or a sexy polar bear or a sexy maple leaf. These are all things that are part of the “dominant culture” in Canada are they not? As per your rule of thumb #1 these would not be racist or cultural appropriation. Everyone seems to focus on how the “majority” oppress and are racist towards the minority without mention to the fact that (at least in my experience) the minorities are just as racist if not more so towards the majority and other minorities. If it is wrong to be a sexy gypsy should it not also be wrong to be a sexy Mountie, because, following a basic interpretation, of your rule of thumb there is nothing wrong with sexy Mountie simply because Mounties are part of the dominant culture in Canada. I do not type this to be confrontational but rather shed light on this from another view.

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    1. Hi, thanks for your feedback!

      Members of a marginalized group dressing up as a “sexy Mountie” on Halloween wouldn’t be racist because they don’t have the power in that dynamic.

      Additionally, and akin to why reverse racism does not exist, marginalized people cannot appropriate the dominant culture. When they do adopt aspects of the dominant culture, or all of it, it’s called assimilation.

      Hope that helps clear it up.

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  2. You raise some good points, reader. I think, though, everyone needs to remember Locke’s recommendation that we should have a “great fewer disputes in the world if words were taken for what they are, the signs of our ideas only, and not for things themselves.” These are just ideas. I suspect Lea’s position goes deeper than what she can communicate in an article 1800 words or less or a reply much shorter; moreover, in as much as any of the Hooligans (the nickname for the cast) might argue passionately for this or that side of an issue, passion always says more about the depth of an adherent’s conviction and less about the actual validity of the stated argument. If you listen to the podcast (episode 3), both Alaine and I present some counter-arguments to Lea’s stated position.

    With that said, when I was completing my B.Ed. I had to take a cultural sensitivity class. I encountered a grad student leading the class requiring student-teachers to accept—without any qualification—the premise that only white people were capable of racism. This premise reflected the anti-white privilege sentiment and ideology emanating from various faculties within Academia who focus upon either identity politics or political correctness; this reaction is traceable to reactionary and counter-cultural intellectual developments from the 1960s.

    I’m not a fan of either identity politics or political correctness: when you think through these filters complex situations are reduced to over-simplifications; consequently, genuine dialogue and understanding is stultified. For example, if you make the claim that members of the white majority cannot experience racism or some form of discrimination you are over-simplifying. I am more than “white.” I am also “Catholic.” I won’t go in to details but I’ve had people think less of me because of this (“they” belonging to a Protestant denomination). I am also “Irish” in ethnicity. My wife was taking care of an old English lady who, upon learning my last name, spit all sorts of racist vitriol in my direction because of my background. We need to be very careful to avoid lumping white people in to some sort of fictional cohesive category. Again, ideologies have a tendency to make complex things fictionally simplistic. So for the same reason I would oppose thinking all “green” people are “this” or “that” I would hesitate painting anyone, irrespective of where they emanate from, with the same brush; this does constitute a form of reverse discrimination.

    For this reason I asked the grad student leading the class whether or not her premise was problematic, i.e. being a history major I’d encountered examples of non-white racism in Africa (Tutsis vs. Hutu in Rwanda) and Asia (Japanese fascism in the 1930s postulating master race theories and such). The grad student responded by telling me to “get back to work” (I was completing part of a group project); it would appear her premise (and her opinions) were more deeply felt as opposed to deeply developed. I regret not pressing her further for an explanation.

    Nonetheless, I think Lea has a point: people who have enjoyed a historical position of privilege, generally speaking, are not necessarily sensitive to the needs or feelings of historically marginalized groups. This does not constitute racism per se; rather, in my honest opinion this is a reflection of a bunch of different factors known under the umbrella term “human nature,” e.g. chauvinism, ego-centrism, ignorance, indifference, etc. etc. The difference between outright racism and indifference, however, is largely semantic: denying marginalized groups respect or influence out of indifference comes to the same end as racism…which I think, deep down, is what Lea was trying to say.

    This whole discussion reminds me of something I came across in Martin Luther King, Jr’s autobiography: he observed the “opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s power.” The problem that the identity and political correct police are trying to fight is power; it just so happens that in the North American context power is for the most part, historically speaking, in the hands of white people. I don’t think this is at all a controversial statement to make; however, I do grow concerned when critics of power lump all whites together in to some sort of discreet group (as though there’s no diversity within it); and this speaks to the problem of confusing ideology as genuine criticism.

    Thanks for your comments and I hope you continue visiting the blog and listening to the podcast.

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