Saturday, October 30, 2010

Halloween: The Most Racist Day of the Year

Growing up in the Michigan parochial school system, we were told by the sisters that the word Hallow’een was a contraction of All Hallows Eve, and that Hallow meant holy or sacred. We were told that on this night when the border between the worlds became blurred, the Celtic tribes believed that the spirits of the dead were allowed to come back to earth. Because they believed that the spirits of the dead could walk among the world of the living, they feared what the spirits might do to them, and tried to disguise themselves to fool the spirits into believing that they weren’t living.

As an impressionable Native girl, that seemed pretty awesome to me back then. Unfortunately, all these traditions have been lost in a materialistic society that transforms everything into a commodity. Sex sells the best in the mainstream media, and this is reflected in the choices that young women make in Halloween costumes. I’ve heard that there are some college parties where women are not allowed to attend unless they are dressed "sexy." The backlash against feminist values is even more chilling when the costumes use other people’s ethnicity to appease the demands of a generation of young white men whose sexual attitudes were constructed almost entirely from pornography. As an indigenous woman, it is disheartening to see how a spiritually bankrupt, pornographic youth culture has transformed All Hallows eve into an opportunity to get drunk and engage in minstrelsy, abusing my image in the process.

While there have been many bloggers objecting to the hyper-sexualization of children and young girls and to the racist element of playing with another human being’s ethnicity on this day, there has been very little written from the perspective of indigenous women, who must confront both misogyny and racism on this day that once carried the connotation of "holy."

My Grandmother always taught me that my female body is sacred. She frequently reminded me that when something is sacred, you cover it. When something is for sale, you put it on display. It wasn’t easy to follow these values as a teen-ager when I wanted to fit in with the other girls, but I am extremely grateful for these teachings today. All of my Native girlfriends are outraged at the way our images are being sold against our will and marketed for the perverse enjoyment of the dominant portion of society.

The most common rationalization put forth by non-Indians engaging in Halloween minstrelsy is that it’s just “harmless fun.” The question I have is, harmless to whom?

I have no doubt that the average college student is unaware that the representation of indigenous women in media has a direct correlation with how we are viewed by society. I’m certain that the young woman hoping to give herself the illusion of being "exotic" by dressing as an Indian princess never stops to think that is a correlation between the objectification and dehumanization of indigenous women and real world violence perpetrated against them.
Over the last 30 years, the Native Women's Association of Canada has chronicled over 600 cases of missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada.

Amnesty International published a report in 2007 that concluded that "Indigenous women face higher incidences of rape/sexual assault than other racial/ethnic groups of women."

They found that, "Sexual violence against Indigenous women in the USA is widespread -- and especially brutal. According to US government statistics, Native American and Alaska Native women are more than 2.5 times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than other women in the USA."

Maze of Injustice

Violence Against Women

"While it's estimated that 1 out of 6 American women will be raped and/or sexually assaulted in her lifetime, more than 1 in 3 Native American women will be raped in her lifetime."

While it is common for non-Natives to assume that Native men are the cause of all this violence, 70% of sexual violence against Native women is committed by non-Natives.

No group of people is more hyper-sexualized on Halloween (and the rest of the year) in America than indigenous women. The Indian Princess is one of the most popular "sexy" costumes. Still, it is difficult for white people to look honestly at the power dynamics in the society where they enjoy the top rung on an artificial and unjust racial hierarchy.

When you objectify and dehumanize a human being, it makes it easier to exploit and sexually violate that human being.

The lack of positive images of indigenous women and the distorted and sexist media image lead to real world- role-playing of racist stereotypes about us on Halloween. This leads to real world violence perpetuated against us. Psychiatrists have well documented that there is a causal link between dehumanization of a group of people and violence against them. The work of Phil Zimbardo who did the Stanford prison experiment documents this very well, but those who are blinded by their own whiteness cannot see this.

Phil Zimbardo interviewed by Steven Hassan

Another way that some people avoid talking about Halloween minstrelsy is to claim that one person’s fun is another person’s degradation. My response is, the person having fun is allowed to be a full human person, but the person feeling degraded has been reduced to an object and is not being thought of as a person by the one just having “fun.” The person doing the objectifying has the point of view that is in error. The person being objectified has the more realistic perspective because she is aware that she is not an object.

Stereotypes reduce whole human beings to objects. The harmful impact of both negative and so-called positive stereotypes on Native Youth has also been well documented.

Blue Corn Comics

I would further argue that there is no such thing as a positive stereotype because reducing an individual even to a positive caricature, still limits her humanity.
Native women have had to confront the two opposing stereotypes of squ*w/princess for centuries. The two complete opposites of the sexless squ*w as workhorse and the hyper sexualized princess who is desperate for a white man, have been used to dehumanize indigenous women and keep them from full participation in society for centuries. Even today, well-intentioned white liberals still see indigenous people in terms of simplistic dichotomies. Our men are either lazy drunks and strident militants or spiritual servants and brave eco warriors. We women are either licentious harlots or wise earthy elders. That doesn’t leave much room in between for our true humanity.

A friend of mine recently saw a preview of the documentary Reel Injun. The documentary revealed that before the 1930s, indigenous people were depicted in a broad range, but after the great depression hit, Hollywood began to produce images of indigenous people as savages. The country was on hard times and it needed a less powerful group to hate. There’s a stunning parallel to the way that immigrants and Muslims are portrayed during the current "recession."

Media images served as a powerful tool to legitimate the taking of indigenous resources. The white population didn’t feel any guilt in the forced acculturation of Native American children because they had been slowly conditioned to view them as savage, less than human and in need of civilizing. It’s easier to seize natural resources and force human beings into virtual slavery if you have been conditioned to see them as less than human. Hollywood deliberately perpetuated racist stereotypes about Native Americans to make it easier to take gold, silver, uranium and land from us. Keeping these stereotypes alive today in the imagination of privileged white American youth will make it easier to continue to use reservations as toxic waste dumps and to continue to seize our resources.

The "Sexy squ*w" costume, where indigenous women are depicted as promiscuous animals, has always been the most offensive Halloween costume to me. This year, when I was surfing the net, I started to notice something – all the women were posed in the exact same fashion. If you survey the costumes available to young women, you will see that all the models have been posed in the exact same manner. They are all scantily clad, barefoot or wearing skimpy high heels and carrying a squ*w axe (or some other weapon). I started asking myself, how do all these different companies know to pose all the models in the exact same way? Well the answer has to be that they are all working from their imaginations that have been shaped by the exact same stereotype.

I looked for a historical precedent and I found what I’ll call the "squ*w on the warpath" stereotype. It is a subset of the "Indian Princess" stereotype, but with the added element of danger. The Pocahontas stereotype is offensive to me because it depicts indigenous women as subservient, passive and existing only for the sexual pleasure of the white men she craves. This emerging stereotype has another dimension to it. The indigenous woman is depicted armed and angry. That anger is not justifiable anger that every treaty that has ever been made between indigenous nations and the United States government has been broken. The women are depicted as sexually desirable and vulnerable, yet armed and irrationally angry and therefore in need or conquering. And who gets to do the conquering? White men of course. The white men who control the college parties where young women exploit themselves are given the privilege of constructing indigenous women according to their own desires and fears – mostly fears of losing their undeserved privileges in the society where they dominate. This "harmless fun" serves to reinforce the racial and sexual domination of indigenous women.

The first use of the "squ*w on the warpath" stereotype that I could find was Carrie Nation. She carried on a prohibition campaign swinging what she termed a "squ*w axe" and tried to used the stereotypical savagery and irrational anger of the Native American woman to her political advantage. In the late 1950’s movies such as "White Squ*w" depicted scantily clad Native women (always played by white women) who were irrationally angry and needed to be subdued by the superior white man. Loretta Lynn came right out and used the term "squ*w on the warpath" as the title for her album. You can see she used the pose from Hollywood movies. When the hippies first started to appropriate Native American images in the 1960’s, the band 1910 Fruitgum Company knew to use this pose in their album cover. And in 2010, Neytiri the blue Avatar has an action figure that is posed in the exact same way. Even people who consider themselves to be liberal have been indoctrinated with these racist and sexist images of indigenous women. The indoctrination is so slow and so complete that they don’t realize it.

A 2010 version of the "squ*w on the warpath" stereotype: Neytiri from Avatar

Playing with racial stereotypes is about power. Those with white skin privilege have chosen to do the defining. Those of us without it are dismissed as hyper-sensitive and told to spend our time on issues that whites define for us as being more important. Those of you reading this that have white skin privilege and think it’s just harmless fun to try on the ethnicity of others, need to realize that dehumanization is the essential processes in the transformation of “good” well-intentioned people into perpetrators of evil. There will be a lot of racist idiocy tomorrow among people of every political persuasion, every race, age and sexual orientation. It’s time to put a stop to it.

There is no reason why you have to succumb to media indoctrination. There is no reason why Halloween has to be the most racist day of the year. As feminists, humanists, and white anti-racists allies, you can challenge undignified images that misrepresent indigenous people. You can chose to talk about racial stereotypes when you see people “just having fun” with other people’s ethnicity on Halloween. We all need to start honestly discussing who has the power to define others in this society and how we can view all human beings in their full humanity and not as one dimensional stereotypes.

When you are in a position of power, you have a responsibility NOT to mock people who are not in a position of power. Racial stereotypes only function are to reinforce outdated notions of white supremacy. You can choose not to engage in the degradation of your fellow human beings. You can contact he companies who manufacture these costumes and inform them how inappropriate they are. Ethnic costumes are meant to produce a reaction. If you are reading this, you now know that the reaction they produce in indigenous women is one of outrage and offense. If you know something offends a marginalized group of people, then why continue to do it? It’s time to turn Halloween back into a night that is sacred, by respecting all women’s bodies and respecting the dignity of all human beings.

Here is the Hall of Shame:

The top companies who are marketing racist Halloween costumes:
(Most of these companies are in Australia or the UK, co-incidentally, the parts of the world where fake Native American "shamanism" is most prevalent.)

Some of the businesses have already removed their "sexy Indian" costumes.


American Indian, Native Alaskan and Native Canadian women and girls from rural areas are prime targets for sex traffickers.

Missing and murdered Aboriginal women

Like Minded Bloggers



Native Appropriations: Rachael Zoe as "Makeshift Indian Warrior"

Paris Hilton was a drunk sexy indian for Halloween

Paris Hilton as a "Sexy Indian": the Halloween Fallout Begins

Angry Navajo/Indian Girl

My Identity is not a costume for you to wear

"appropriating the identities of racial minorities and perpetuating stereotyping isn’t cool at Halloween or any other time."

The S-Word: The Squaw Stereotype in American Popular Culture

Racialicious: Take Back Halloween

Lightweight Racist

Unmasking Racism: Halloween Costuming and the Engagement of the Racial Other


MS. - They fail to mention racist costumes hmmm

Halloween Breeds Sexism

Collection of sexist and inappropriate Halloween costumes (at least they included Indian princess)

Halloween Costumes for Feminists

Halloween Can Sometimes Be More Of A Trick Than A Treat


Killing the Indian Maiden: Images of Native American Women in Film


For all the white folks out there who still just don’t get it

Tim Wise-The Pathology of White Privilege Part 1/6


Anonymous said...

Despite the horrible Loretta Lynn album cover, in all fairness, Loretta IS from first nations blood. Her mother was Tsalgi and Scottish, and the rest of her people before her were all Tsalgi. It is also known that Loretta's father called her "baby sq*aw" or "little sq*aw", and so I can see why Loretta used that as a title for her song. It was an endearing, not racist term to her.

Anonymous said...

btw I'm surprised you haven't talked about "Little Grandmother" aka Kiesha Crowther on your blog. She's a white woman who is making claims right now that she is from a prophecy and that the Salish and Lakota Sioux elders have made her a "Salish Shaman" over the Salish nation. She travels everywhere and charges people for her seminars. She tried to lay claim to Arvol Looking Horse by saying he was a supporter of hers, when he doesn't know her. She has her videos all over youtube.

Kathryn Price NicDhàna said...

Brilliant, thorough post. Thank you.

Jonathan Elliot said...

Thankyou. As a white man from a foreign country (New Zealand) I had never thought about this before.

We don't really celebrate Halloween here to the extent the US does. I wonder what would be said of people wearing costumes of our native (Maori) people. It doesn't happen as far as I know.


Jonathan from Spritzophrenia

Cara said...

Wow. I'm a young white woman who has always wanted to dress as Pocohantas for Halloween. I've always loved the movie because she spent time outdoors, sang, loved her home and nature and had pretty hair. I'm sorry that those aren't the qualities represented to someone who actually is Native. I definitely agree with you on most points and am sorry that I didn't realize how racist these costumes are. One thing, the teeny tiny promiscuous outfits are not exclusive to racist costumes. That's definitely a female costume thing. I really appreciate all the information that you shared. As I said, I had no idea how justifiably upsetting those costumes are and would like to apologize whole-heartedly for the pain and distress they have caused both you and other Natives.