On Oct. 19, James Singer, a Navajo, published an article on his blog, UrbanNavajo, about BYU-Idaho students bringing awareness to the subject of offensive Halloween costumes in Rexburg.
Christopher Sebastian, a contributor to the blog post and a freshman majoring in international studies, came across a display of offensive costumes portraying Native Americans at a Halloween store in Rexburg, according to the blog post.
He took a photo of the costumes and sent it to Singer, with whom he served on his mission in Portugal.
Cultural appropriation occurs when elements or aspects of one culture are adopted by another culture in a negative or disrespectful manner, according to Cultural Appropriation and the Arts by James O. Young.
Singer said when he sees his Navajo culture being appropriated in any way, whether it be through Halloween costumes or even by a mainstream clothing store using a Navajo pattern or design on its clothing, it makes him feel like less of a person.
“It makes me sad,” he said. “Disappointed.”
Singer said two things he loves most about his culture are the rich and extensive philosophy behind it and the resilience of his people.
“It is based on a notion of harmony, balance and rationality,” he said.
Singer said the thing that bothers him the most is when he or someone from the appropriated culture tries to correct the appropriator and receives a belligerent response.
“Instead of realizing that life exists beyond them, that there are other people out there, and that their actions continue to oppress others, they try to defend their actions by dismissing me and turning it back on me,” he said. “That is the most infuriating part.”
Sebastian said that most people, however, do not intend to harm others when they appropriate another culture.
“I think that a lot of people don’t understand what it actually means, or what the devastating effects towards Native Americans are when one dresses up, or tries to portray a sexualized Native American lady, with a Halloween costume,” Sebastian said.
Ardeth Palma, who is Filipino Chinese and a senior studying history, said she once heard a woman say she was going to be Asian for Halloween.
“You’re doing it for laughs and giggles,” she said. “You’re not doing it to build bridges with that culture. When you wear it, it’s cool and it’s fashionable, but when I wear it, somehow, it’s not cool, and it’s my own culture. It’s not OK.”
Allison Palma, Ardeth Palma’s sister and a sophomore studying accounting, said when a piece of one culture is appropriated by another culture, it shows a lack of respect and understanding.
“They want to take the aspect of that culture, but they don’t want the experience that comes with it,” Allison Palma. “They don’t want to know the hardship or the history that goes behind it. They just like it because it looks good.”
Sebastian said when an individual chooses to dress as another cultural group, it should be done in a respectful manner.
“When it comes to Halloween, to have a Native American costume, it’s very sexualized, and it demeans the meanings of those particular clothing,” he said.
One thing that disturbs Sebastian, he said, is how Native American women are portrayed in modern Halloween costumes considering the genocide and rape that has occurred in their history.
Singer said that a way to look at cultural appropriation from an LDS perspective is to imagine that someone used the general pattern of Mormon temple apparel and garments, altered them to appear more sexy and then parade around saying, “I’m a Mormon for Halloween.”
He said that costumes portraying a fictional character, such as a Disney princess, of another race still falls under cultural appropriation because their character is likely fictionalized and molded to fit another idea.
“If you were to ask anyone, ‘What do you know about Indians? Tell me the story of Pocahontas,’ they’d give you the fictionalized account,” he said. “That should tell us a lot about how we view Natives: in a limited and fictionalized way.”
Allison Palma said there are times when adopting parts of another culture is acceptable, and that there is a difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation.
David Holland, who is Polynesian and a senior studying art, said it is a positive thing when people come to the different cultural associations on campus to learn about the different cultural groups represented at BYU-I.
“Most, if not everyone, who join the associations around here, they’re doing it with good intent,” he said.
Ardeth Palma said people should try to appreciate cultures within the boundaries the people of those cultures have set. Allison Palma said that sometimes people think it is acceptable to appropriate a culture because their friend who belongs to that culture said it was OK.
“Not everyone is like your friend,” Ardeth Palma said. “There are some people who are more sensitive to it. Just because your friend is OK with it and he doesn’t mind, that doesn’t mean I’m going to be OK with it.”
Allison Palma said one person from a culture is not the authority of the culture, and when in doubt, the best option is to either consult multiple people from that culture about the costume, or not do it.
“There’s so much that we can offer, there’s so much you can learn from us, and that just creates empathy for another group,” Allison Palma said. “And when you have empathy, you’re less likely to appropriate; you’re less likely to be racist because you’ve opened your eyes, and it’s not as foreign.”
Sebastian said that since he and Singer served together in Portugal, they have remained close friends and that he has learned much about the Navajo culture from spending time with Singer and his family.
“It was a wonderful opportunity to have been educated a little bit more from his experience about Native Americans, but more so the Navajo tribe,” Sebastian said.
Sebastian’s companion’s family members, the Singers, currently reside in Utah, and are Native American activists. He said that although he does not know everything about cultural appropriation, most of what he knows he has learned from the Singer family.
“I’ve kind of grown to love them and respect them,” he said.
Sebastian said Native Americans, or those of any other culture, are not a thing of the past and should not be treated as a costume.
Being educated about privilege, racism and other cultures will open doors for better communication between cultural groups, Singer said.
“We’re all human and do stupid things,” he said. “The best thing to do is be humble and apologize.”
He said that although everyone has been created equally, everyone is different and our differences should be celebrated.
“I think it comes down to that Christlike love,” Sebastian said. “I would say that Christ, he’s understanding toward all people of all differences — culturally, socially, politically.”
He said taking time to learn and appreciate other cultures before adopting their characteristics is something everyone should do.
“This is not about being politically correct,” he said. “I think there is a big difference when it comes to being politically correct and being culturally tolerant and culturally aware of the differences that we have with those around us.”