In looking through the abyss of my old Facebook albums recently, I stumbled upon a picture that made me cringe: myself on Halloween during my first year at the University of Washington.
Now, it wasn’t the awkward facial expression I made that had me wincing (why would a person think sticking out their tongue would make them look cute?), but instead was the costume I wore: In the grainy, dimly lit photo, I stood in a tan, fringed dress; a brown leather belt around my waist; painted below my left eye was a single red stripe; my hair in two braids with a woven headband along my forehead and a single feather tucked behind my head.
I was dressed up as my interpretation of Pocahontas.
I had forgotten I chose that outfit for my first Halloween as a college student, and now I was suddenly hit with a rush of embarrassment while staring at my freshman self.
How could I have worn something so racially insensitive?
In retrospect, I had no idea what I wore was considered to be a mockery of an entire group of people. And in all honesty, I thought it was acceptable.
I can recall in my childhood I had an obsession with the Disney adaptation of the historical figure. Her cartoon version adorned my bed sheets and pillowcases, my clothes too. I had the VHS (of course), which I used to watch so much I can still recite many of the film’s sing-along songs to this day.
Even as I grew up, my connection to Pocahontas remained intact. In high school especially, when I began wearing my black, naturally pin-straight hair long and parted in the middle. Often people would remark on how much I looked like the Indian Princess, and I always took the comment as a compliment, since the heroine was one of my biggest idols.
A couple times I even was asked if I was Native American. In fact, people regularly asked me the question: “what are you?”
Sure, occasionally it would be rephrased to questions like: “what nationality are you,” or “are you A, B, X or Z race,” but the underlying message to me seemed to be, “You don’t look like a specific race or ethnicity, so please help me out in figuring what you are.”
Soon it became so common for me to get those questions that I began to mentally note the races and ethnicities I had been mistaken for: Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Mongolian, Latina, Hawaiian, the list goes on.
And when I would reveal my real race -100% Filipina- I sometimes heard something along the lines of, “Oh, you don’t look like a Filipino,” or “Wow, you’re so [blank] for a Filipino.”
While I should add as a disclaimer that people’s perception of my racial ambiguity does not excuse my poor decision to dress up as a “Poca-hottie,” it does give some insight into why I felt it was ok.
In my incredibly naïve, pre-race-course-educated brain I thought that since I was seen to be so many races/ethnicities by all sorts of people, that must’ve meant I was some sort of a “multicultural individual.” And in being a “multicultural individual” along with the history of Indigenous American culture being used as trends it must have been ok to wear a costume of a character I was not only already compared to, but also highly respected and admired for more than a decade.
However, in the three years since I decided to dress-up as an extremely romanticized and incorrectly portrayed historical figure, I have learned the real damage of one action and of my previous mind-set.
From taking various courses while at UW –in American Indian Studies, American Ethnic Studies and Communications- I’ve learned that perpetuating the image of Native Americans as Indian Princesses, (or Warriors, Savages, etc.) is harmful. It dehumanizes individuals to merely caricatures, subjecting them to a handful of stereotypes and allowing their identity and aspects of their culture to be easily appropriated. By dressing up as an Indigenous Americans, entire groups of people become simply costumes.
While discovering this photo will forever cause me to shudder from the guilt of my freshman year Halloween outfit, I can hold on to some solace knowing that I won’t make the same offensive mistake or have the same juvenile thinking anymore.
— Mae B. Cado