BYU-Idaho students ask that their cultures be respected

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.”

'BYU-Idaho students ask that their cultures be respected' have 10 comments

  1. October 27, 2015 @ 1:27 pm Dallin Weiyang Chen

    I have mixed feelings about this. As an Asian, I completely understand why people could feel offended when people of other races use our traditional clothing as costumes. At the same time, I don’t think most people were making fun of the culture when they are wearing the costumes. People dress up like the Police, super heroes, or Disney princesses for fun, because they don’t usually get to wear things like that. I have worn a men’s Kimono and Taiwanese aboriginal clothing for previous Halloweens and I wore those outfits with PRIDE!


    • October 30, 2015 @ 4:41 pm Brock

      I agree with you Dallin, a few weeks ago I saw people being upset because someone who wasn’t in the military wore dog tags. The argument being that they were stealing something sacred from the members of the military by doing so. I call bull. People just get offended too easily.


  2. October 27, 2015 @ 1:57 pm IZ

    What do I know about Native Americans? The part where they did human sacrifices or raided each others villages and took slaves? Bet you aren’t speaking about that either are you? Costumes are just that: pretending to be something you aren’t. So yes, by definition your culture is a costume. Breaking news: people are bad and do bad things but not everything has to offend you, especially the actions of uneducated humans hundreds of years ago.


  3. October 27, 2015 @ 3:36 pm Katie in Cali

    So true. I look back and am completely, utterly embarrassed that I had dressed as a Native American woman for a Halloween costume party as a young married person. I thought it was “cute”. It wasn’t. I was just surrounded by all white people and didn’t even consider (not even for a moment) that what I wore could be trivializing another culture (but it was). I’m grateful that a few years of maturity, sensitivity, reading many articles written by POC about their life experiences, and seeing the common defensiveness of white people who are unwilling to change their perception or actions because it’s not convenient or pleasant to think about. For the people who are trying to educate others, like James Singer, I salute you and I’m reading and I’m listening. This stuff seeps into our lives and even our church culture like a horrible tradition of insensitivity. I was completely horrified at a recent Scout event where the white anglo leaders dressed in “Indian costumes” and assumed horrible Peter Pan-like accents to act out an entire play, all while Native Americans respectfully dressed in their beautiful outfits sat in the audience. Can you imagine what this looked like to the young Native American woman and her parents who were there as a favor to a friend (who invited them to come share their sacred dance/music that night!)? The contrast between the whites-acting-as-Natives and the truly uplifting and soul-touching dance and music that followed was stark. There should be none of this crude imitation of Hollywoodized accents and comical dress in our programs. It was insulting, at best. Offensive? Yes, by definition it was. The scout leaders weren’t bad people, and I’m sure they don’t think of themselves as racist – but they sure never thought about what that whole thing would look like or sound like in the eyes of someone else. They weren’t trying to be culturally ignorant, but…they were. Sometimes when you find an old script, it’s OK to throw it out and write a new one. When someone is offended by what you do/say/did, you don’t get to tell them they aren’t “really” offended. I liked what this article said about one person not being the voice of an entire people. Check around. We can educate ourselves. People of other cultures DON’T OWE US ANYTHING, especially their time (online or in person) in explaining things that we can find out with a simple search online if we cared enough. If you find yourself demanding that someone online take time to explain basic terms to you to change your mind about a subject…you’re in the wrong and you need to do your own footwork.


  4. October 27, 2015 @ 4:13 pm Derek Forbush

    The principle behind this is true–that we should all be respectful of others’ beliefs and traditions, cultures and codes. That being said, we also need to recognize the variety of circumstances surrounding each case of so-called “disrespect.” Many people, I’m certain, don’t consider disrespectful what others consider intolerable. Though Mormons shudder at the thought of others desecrating ordinance clothing and temple garments (a comparison which, by the way, I believe is ludicrous), the fact remains that those who do such things most likely don’t understand the spiritual significance of such clothing, and thus don’t treat such a subject as they ought to. Likewise, I would encourage those who are put off by others’ tactless actions to open their minds for a moment and realize that not everybody sees the world in the same way; to assume that we do–or should–is naive. Elder David A. Bednar said in the October 2006 General Conference: “To be offended is a choice we make; it is not a condition inflicted or imposed upon us by someone or something else.” Thus, it’s really not their problem, but yours and mine; will we use our agency to take offense? shame them and tell them how wrong they are? Wishing, asking, debating, or even forcing others to conform to my point of view will most likely result in the opposite. But if I truly want to be happy in the way others treat my culture (yes, Americans have culture too, which also is mocked in foreign lands), I should first try taking their “offenses” with a grain of salt, and showing them what my true culture is really about: dignity.


  5. October 28, 2015 @ 6:21 am will

    I think if you get offended by someone putting on your cultural attire who is not of your culture, you are a super racist. Might want to go see a counselor and check yourself.


  6. October 28, 2015 @ 8:49 am Yolita Tirado

    I really enjoyed reading the different points you made throughout the article while being respectful and informative.


  7. October 28, 2015 @ 12:50 pm Aly

    I feel the same way as Dallin about this. There are some inappropriate costumes, such as the sexualized Native American costumes discussed in the article. However, my experience with costumes has been different. Many people feel an affinity with a certain culture, especially if they’ve lived or served their mission there. These people wear their kimonos, dastars, and liederhosen with pride, not meaning to cause any offense but to express love for that culture, much the same as if a native were to wear that as a costume. Don’t judge people for their choice in costumes.


  8. October 28, 2015 @ 2:55 pm Matt

    This whole issue should not be an issue. It’s Halloween! Just laugh and move on! You don’t need to be offended. Like they say if it wasn’t meant as an offense and you get offended then it’s your fault!


  9. October 28, 2015 @ 10:48 pm Brendon

    I don’t think the author of this article has a leg to stand on. I doubt that costumes are worn regularly with the intent to mock. But even if that were the case, the United State’s Parody and Fair-Use laws, show that as a culture and a country, mockery is not only permitted but protected by law (see Campbell vs AR Music Co.,_Inc.) Imagine if Saturday Night Live’s Sketch of the GOP Debate was interrupted by Ben Carson waiving a sign that read, “I’m a Politician! Not a Punchline!” It would be considered absurd.

    Simply because something is not an accurate representation of a part of your culture does not give you merit to boycott or be offended. The Broadway play “The Book of Mormon” was a commercially produced mockeries of cultural tradition. Was it sometimes insensitive? Yes. Was it done with malintent? Probably not. How did the LDS church respond? By buying advertising space in the playbill that said, “You’ve seen the play, now read the book. The book is always better.”

    I suggest you use Halloween as a chance to show others the beauty of your heritage. Many of us are not blessed with the same diversity in our family tree.


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