Your Native American Cosplay Is Racist AF

Every spring, as Coachella wraps up, I breathe a quick little sigh of relief knowing that it’ll be a while before my Twitter feed fills up again with white kids in Urban Outfitters headdresses, Party City chokers, buckskin bikini tops, and Revlon war paint. You know, redface. Also known as cultural appropriation. And sure, that might not be the biggest problem you can think of right now—after all, you might think that of all the kinds of genocide out there, cultural genocide is probably the most polite of them. So, the act of wearing me, my relatives, my ancestors, and essentially anyone of Indigenous ethnicity as a costume may strike you as something that falls more toward the genteel end of the racism spectrum than, say, shooting at us.

Here’s the thing, though: it’s still racism. And it’s a bigger deal than you might think.

And even after Coachella, it isn’t quite over. We’re into convention season now, which means we’ve got months ahead of us in which to potentially see white people dressed up as Connors, Tiger Lilies, Pocahonti, and generic manic pixie tribegirls whenever we go out to see some panels and get a few autographs. (Not to mention that one pack of bros at every con who think their beards are spirit animals, but that’s another article.) We’re in a position to be labeled social justice warriors, to be told we’re too easily offended, and to hear how hard these cosplayers tried and the great pains they took to make sure their Native American cosplay wouldn’t be problematic. But, statistically, it pretty much always is.

To their credit, cons take great care to ensure that none of their attendees are running around being white supremacists. (Well, some do.) I mean, they take as much care as they can. The problem is that not all con runners actually recognize this stuff when it’s in front of them. It is, after all, easy to see a Nazi costume for what it is, but let’s say some dude is running around dressed like a Coachella dirtbag. That, for some reason, is perfectly acceptable in some circles. And some of those circles overlap with circles full of con folk.

The best-case scenario when this happens is that someone on convention staff notices, and they know enough to recognize that this is both racist and wrong. In an ideal world, the convention staff goes on to acknowledge that Indigenous people are walking around the con, trying hard to have a good time without having to look at any occupiers wearing racial caricatures of them. Ideally, the cosplayer in redface gets a talking to. Perhaps they are even advised not to be so openly racist. And perhaps, in the idealest of ideal worlds, they listen.

Ideals aren’t always realized, though, and here’s why.

Natives exist. We survive. We continue to live on our own occupied lands, and we try to live by our occupiers’ rules. We speak English for you. We function in your society in all manner of roles: we’re teachers, firefighters, police, paramedics, doctors, lawyers, students, artists, authors, janitors, politicians, scientists, and whatever else you can probably name. We don’t ask for anything in return, except for maybe an end to the genocide that’s been whittling at us for centuries now. And, occasionally, we like to enjoy things like Star Wars, comics, and anime. Often, that enjoyment manifests in our presence at your local con.

But a lot of you refuse to see us as doctors, lawyers, and the like. Not all, mind you, but a noteworthy portion of you. A lot of you look at us and see only historical footnotes, cartoons, or Kevin Costner’s props. In short, you see the most convenient nonpresent, nonhuman thing you can see. Simply put, you dehumanize us.

Now don’t get defensive. I’m not blaming you—not directly, at least. You were born into a society that conditions you to do this from birth, and it’s all around you. It isn’t just your pop culture. It’s your education. It’s your parents and your peers. Your political leaders, too.

I mean, there are the obvious ones. Donald Trump has famously used anti-Indian slurs while in office, but Trump’s racism is like fish in a barrel at this point. And he’s far from the only political figure who’s openly racist toward Native people—don’t forget that his political opponent in 2016, who was the presumably socially conscious one, uses the term “off the reservation” synonymously with deplorable behavior. Dreamy Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau is kind of the poster boy for performative allyship, not to mention the occasional outright anti-Indigenous racism. Politicians on both the left and right self-Indigenize for political gain. It’s pretty much everywhere.

Your institutions build play sculptures commemorating Native genocide. Your media uses Native cultures and beliefs, and even their very likenesses, as punchlines. Your history and social-studies curricula erase their very existence. You have federal holidays in honor of invaders who slaughtered them. Your sports teams equate them to clowns. Your music festivals to costumes. Your government tracks Natives’ blood quantum the way breeders track horse and dog pedigrees.

These are all pieces of a larger dehumanization puzzle, and it’s that dehumanization at the heart of this issue, because your ability to empathize with another person is directly proportional to your seeing them as human. If you see them as less, you can comfortably justify hurting them. The less human you see them as being, the more you feel justified in their oppression. Dehumanize someone enough and you can justify murder, as fits the profile of your average serial killer.

There are many, many easily Googleable books and articles on dehumanization. One of them, a 2012 award winner by David Livingstone Smith, sums the idea up rather neatly. In Less Than Human, Smith recounts the way soldiers have been taught to view their enemies as brutes, cockroaches, lice, vermin, and so on. Nazi death-camp guards saw their prisoners as rats. In the United States, settlers labelled displaced Natives as savages. Today, soldiers are taught less obvious monikers, such as target or combatant. In civilian life, you learn a level of disdain for such undesirables as thugs or illegals.

“When people dehumanize others, they actually conceive of them as subhuman creatures,” Smith told NPR in an interview, noting that only then can the process “liberate aggression and exclude the target of aggression from the moral community.” Like Buffalo Bill did to women in The Silence of the Lambs: torturing them, caging them, and referring to them only as “it” (and, notably, wearing them as costumes).

Not that any of you are out there planning to literally wear an Indigenous person as a costume, Leatherface style. It’s not that—it’s that this is how we get to where we are now. Indigenous people’s dehumanization exists in a Gordian tangle with every aspect of your society. It goes back a long way, and while this phenomenon admittedly predates the United States, it was roundly perfected here in America. So much so that Nazi Germany modeled its Lebensraum Politik after America’s doctrine of Manifest Destiny. And while Manifest Destiny has morphed since the 19th century, is no longer mentioned by name in polite company, and is today a far different beast than it was during its humble origins as a simple land-grabbing policy, it is still here. It is still in action, and it’s everywhere you look.

And it survives by your seeing us as cartoons, costumes, and props.

Once that’s your perspective, it’s easy to dismiss things like an all-white jury acquitting a white farmer after he admitted to murdering an Indigenous youth. See us this way and it won’t bother you at all that the Dakota Access Pipeline was rerouted upstream of Indigenous communities after white citizens refused to allow it near them. You won’t care that Native women are stopped, searched, and arrested by police more than any other segment of the population. The ongoing systemic, epidemic abduction and murder of Indigenous women won’t even faze you. Neither will you care that energy companies have permanently irradiated the land where Native people live.

And yes, to be completely clear: your reduction of Native people to a fun and edgy cosplay is a part of this. Your cosplay sets the tone in which the rest of these attrocities get ’splained away.

So, most readers have probably read enough by now. Most of you now understand what you or perhaps your friends have been doing. Most of you are ready to stop. Others, though—well, some people just love doing mental gymnastics. Some will really want to make a case for why their particular racist caricature of a costume is still alright and totally not racist.

But it’s not, and it is.

“It is not acceptable to wear blackface in this country and never should have been,” Jacqueline Keeler told USA TODAY in a 2014 interview. “We need to make the same case about redface. We need people to think of it in the same way and see why it’s wrong in the same way.” (If you need a refresher on why blackface isn’t cool, and why it’s totally racist even when done ironically for a costume, Briana Lawrence already covered that here on Twin Cities Geek.)

Still others might argue that they’re only emulating a fictional character, or a historical figure, and that this makes racist costuming acceptable, if only just this once. Well, a lot of people disagree with them, Dr. Adrienne Keene being just one of many:

No, Pocahontas and Tonto aren’t ok because they’re “fictional” and/or “historic” “characters”—they’re based off tired stereotypes that continue to marginalize Native peoples. No, you can’t wear your Boy Scout Order of the Arrow regalia, even if a “real Indian” taught you how to make it. It’s not respectful to wear it as a costume, and I’ll argue that it’s not respectful for you to wear it ever, but that’s another post.

Others might point to the amount of work they put into their costume. They may go so far as to say that the consideration and labor they put into assembling their elaborate and totally historically accurate ensemble are signs of the great respect they have for Native Americans. They’ll tell you they’re honoring Native Americans. However, arguing with Native Americans over whether or not you’re respecting them is usually a sign that you’re not. And any time your claim to be honoring someone ends in any variation of “. . . and I’m going to keep on honoring you whether you like it or not,” you’re not honoring anyone. You’re just harassing an entire ethnic group to justify your costume, and unintentional disrespect and dishonor are still disrespect and dishonor, even if you don’t want them to be.

Or, as this Tumblr user puts it:

Yes, you look beautiful, Yes you may have put tons of hours into your beautiful cosplay, that is amazing and I commend you for it, but that’s the thing. To you, it’s a cosplay, a costume, one you wear for a couple hours until YOU decide to take it off. To me, that’s my culture, and I just CAN’T take my “costume” off.

Yet others will maintain that appropriation goes both ways. They will note that Nick Fury and Annie started as white characters. They will point to Indigenous fans dressing as traditionally white superheroes—while glossing over the fact that these Indigenous fans are not painting themselves up in whiteface (whatever that would be) to portray another ethnicity, but simply putting on a cape, cowl, or space suit—and whatever else they can say to justify this type of ethnic and cultural appropriation.

We’d need a bigger article dedicated to appropriation to address all of this, but since that’s not the focus here, kindly view this video clip by Lindsay Ellis in lieu.

“But,” others might add, “I look really good, and that’s all that matters.”

No it isn’t, and no you really don’t. As Hon’mana Seukteoma succinctly puts it, “In all seriousness, you’re just making yourself look ridiculous, stupid, childish, and super racist. So, that’s on you.”

Others may invoke that old white proverb: “I’m part Native American, and I’m not offended.”

Let’s not spend a lot of time picking at your belief, because we need an even bigger article for that. Instead, let’s ask which of your Native ancestors makes you “part Native American.” Perhaps it was someone you knew. Maybe a living relative like a grandparent or great-grandparent was “part Native American,” and that’s where you get your part. Unless you really hated that relative, you probably aren’t okay with paving the way for them to be dehumanized, humiliated, abducted, assaulted, murdered, and so on. And if you’re not okay with that being done to your part-Native relative, consistency demands that you’re not okay with it being done to Native strangers either.

So, if you’re “part Native American” and you’re not offended, we can only conclude that you really hate some of your relatives. Perhaps your grandma. If, on the other hand, you like your grandma and you wouldn’t want to see any of those things done to her, then you should, in fact, be offended. Even if you didn’t realize this until just now, you now know how offensive this is. And you should act accordingly.

Others still will ask, “Aren’t there more important issues you should be worrying about?”

Yes. Yes, there are. There are issues like abduction, assault, murder, erasure, genocide, and so on. All of which are touched on above, all of which are very important, and all of which go hand in hand with dehumanization, which goes hand in hand with racist AF cosplay. And, as Vernon Bellecourt often said, if we can’t get people to stop and reconsider something as simple and straightforward as dressing up in Indian costumes, how can we ever expect them to tackle the so-called bigger issues?

Finally, a few particularly stubborn people might argue that their edginess or the irony inherent in what they’re doing earns them a pass. They might point out that cosplayers show up dressed as Pennywise, or as that weird clown-looking thing that follows Light around in Death Note, even though some people are afraid of clowns, and that if these edgy costumes are allowed, then theirs should be too. But for one, these aren’t racist costumes. For two, lots of cosplayers get asked to adjust or refrain from certain costuming choices so they won’t terrify other people. This is the whole reason peace bonding is a thing for prop weapons. For three, clown costumes do actually get banned. Perhaps for reasons you might consider silly and unnecessary, but they do.

As Tiffany Midge has reported, there are entire towns that have banned clown costumes on Halloween. Costumes that incorporate weapons are highly restricted. Costumes that embody real threats to others simply aren’t allowed. (Mostly, anyway. I mean, plenty of cons are only gradually coming around to the idea of a soft ban on Nazis.) But that shouldn’t only happen when non-Natives are the ones being threatened. Offending Native people shouldn’t still be totally cool in these spaces, but it too often is. Because dehumanization.

If you happen to do this out of ignorance, and Natives call you on it, the correct response is “I’m sorry. I’ll stop.” Maybe, if you truly don’t understand why they’re offended, politely ask them to explain what you did that offended them. But actually listen when they do. Don’t just rephrase the same thing over and over and pretend it’s a follow-up question. Everyone will see you for a troll if you do, and nobody’s gonna mess with trolls.

So listen, then move on to “I’m sorry. I’ll stop.” That’s the correct response. The incorrect response is not to double down—say, by putting the costume back on and trolling Natives in a video, like minor Instagram personality Portia D.

Portia recently dressed up and shot a video in a sexy Pocahontas costume. Some of her Indigenous followers were quick to point out that this type of Pocahontas imagery is pretty triggering—I mean, we’re talking about a preteen girl who was an unwilling child bride and survived physical and sexual abuse along with captivity before dying of “unknown causes” at the age of 21. This is someone whose tragic story was then sanitized and sexed up to entertain the descendants of the people who did this to her. And as awesome as it is that we got an Indigenous Disney princess in the ’90s, this made what we got at least as problematic and traumatic as it was awesome.

So if you do that and dredge up all these Indigenous feels among your fan base, and then the people you’re mocking stand up and ask you to kindly stop mocking them, that’s when you should do the whole “I’m sorry, I’ll stop” thing. To be clear, that’s the correct response. The correct response is not to taunt Native people on the Internet by shooting another video in which you put the costume back on and insult the aforementioned child bride in such eloquent terms as “She a ho. She did some ho shit.”

Ahem! Portia is a racist. She did some racist shit.

And this is where the discussion might get confused. This is the point where someone might just jump in and argue that Portia can’t be racist because she’s African American, and only white people can be racist. This concept of racism concludes that since white people aren’t directly affected by racism in America, no one but white people can do racism.

But a reduction of “white people don’t experience racism” that ends in “you have to be white to do something racist” is an outdated notion. It belongs back in the ’90s along with Joss Whedon’s feminism. It was good in its time, and may even have seemed forward thinking for a while, but it was never the best it could be. It was, for all its good intentions, an inadequate interpretation of American racism.

That outdated concept discounts racism’s systemic nature. Any time one person is in a position to suffer racism, just about anyone else could be in a position to enact the system responsible for racism against them. If you’re in that position, then you are in fact in a position to do some racist shit. You can’t enact racism against white people, but you often can do it against someone else, regardless of who you are.

For example, here are just a few of many possible ways in which you might have perpetuated racism. If you are a white person or a person of color who has ever . . .

  • defended the cops from your position of authority after two men were arrested for being black in Starbucks
  • told Indian jokes, or defended your white friends who do, as a means of insulting actual Indians
  • referred to an ethnic Asian person as “Chinese” by default, whether or not you meant any offense
  • used another ethnic person’s race as a basis to exclude them from opportunities or threaten them
  • used existing racist ideals to dehumanize an ethnic person or group, despite their objections

. . . you have employed systemic racial oppression. You have taken advantage of existing social and legal systems that work against people of color by design, and you have done this to another person whose existence is one of racism’s historic targets. Also by design. You. Have. Been. Racist.

Indigenous people know this all too well, as does this guy:

So does Pedro Rodriguez, a Latinx baseball fan who once dressed up in redface and whitesplained Chief Wahoo to Native Americans. To their faces, no less.

Now, remember the part where “I’m sorry, I’ll stop” is the correct response? Two years later, Rodriguez apologized after considering the racism he has endured because of his Puerto Rican heritage. He listened. He did his homework. He was sorry, and he stopped because he rehumanized us. He put himself in the place of the people he once mocked, compared that place to his own, and had an epiphany.

So, if after all of this you’re still intent on wearing Native people as costumes, at least now you know what you’re doing. You know that you’re taking some part, however insignificant you feel it is, in the larger ongoing genocide Native people still face every day. You know that your costume dehumanizes us no less than Der Stürmer dehumanized Jewish people in Germany, and you know what you’re perpetuating.

You also know you don’t have to. You know you can change the way you view Natives. You can see them as real, living human beings, and you can imagine how you as a real, living human being would feel in their place. Since you know all of this, if you still choose to wear them as your cosplay, don’t act like you didn’t know it was racist.

I mean, no one can force you to stop. But don’t be surprised if #NativeTwitter puts you on blast for it.

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