Growing Pains: Pocahontas and Racial Ambiguity

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.

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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

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6 thoughts on “Growing Pains: Pocahontas and Racial Ambiguity

  1. sreyabhowmik

    This was a great blog post.This reminded me of how when I first moved to the United States in 2010, a lot of people called me exotic and I actually got a little bit flattered. I was immature and obviously didn’t think about things. Just this past Halloween, a friend of mine dressed up as Pocahontas. She took great pains to make sure her costume looked exactly like the Disney version (she even tattooed the red marking on her arm using henna). When some people criticized her, she tried to explain that she was just trying to dress up as her favorite Disney Princess. She also reiterated that if she got dressed as Cinderella, would people give her flak for trying to dress white? She said it because the Disney image is so widely spread, people forget the history of oppression and violence. To her, all that mattered was being a Disney princess.

    Reply
  2. SangUk Kim

    It was very interesting to read your blog post as it not only captures the awakening moment of controversial topic:race but also reminds me of the experience that I had. First of all, while reading the blog post, I realized that one’s costume or behavior, which initially means to express one’s interest can be misguided to the others. Even though you were meant to express yourselves by wearing the costume that you liked most, people considered it as very exotic and even indirectly distorted your original purpose. Furthermore, I was disappointed with racial bias, which we were forced to follow. Your experience really reminded me of the first Halloween after I moved States. I remembered that I dressed up like a Cowboy but friends and their parents looked and regarded me as like I was wearing very unsuitable costume.

    Reply
  3. cdjohan

    I remember we were talking about this in class and I was surprised at your approach for your blogpost! I would have never thought of halloween costumes can create a deeper meaning into it. I see many girls wearing the Chinese take out box costume for halloween this year and thought of even being one too. However, that was just one icon of the Chinese culture that is portrayed in the U.S. To be honest, we don’t even have such take out boxes when I traveled to China!

    Reply
  4. christopherjduclos

    MARGE IN CHARGE!! I vaguely remember you telling me about this once upon a time at my old apartment.

    Racial ambiguity? maybe. I knew you were Filipino and wanted to be friends since then when we had our workshop together.

    I fail to see the guilt that you might be suffering from your freshman year costume. A lot of people dress up as something they’re not or portray a race they don’t necessarily belong in. What happens if a Caucasian shows up casually late to a party dressed as a box of Chinese take-out? People laugh..depending on who that guy is..is he the class clown? then of course people would laugh..look at him! he’s a box of take-out!

    What about this? I think a lot of people would call this creative/cute..not an “oh you’re disrespecting japanese culture!” — http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_1g7X46iX7lQ/TNMgCZoV4TI/AAAAAAAABes/QgQbmqDaobc/s1600/Halloween+2.jpg

    I digress, I do feel there is some gray area with Native Americans, especially with a figure like Pocahontas. Many girls dress like Poca-whatevers because they have dark skin. There’s no racial intentions or slander of Native Americans intended. Native Americans come under a lot of racial scrutiny it seems..and I’ll reference the Washington Redskins Football Club on this one.

    Reply
  5. ssyun1014

    I also did not expect Halloween costumes to reflect racial ambiguity. Last year, a group of guys/men my friends and I ran into wore kimonos and hanbok (traditional Korean dress) and I was not offended by that until they started speaking words in Japanese and Korean. I wasn’t offended by their attempt in speaking Asian languages, but rather offended by their choice of inappropriate words. I didn’t take their dressing as Japanese/Korean as a serious matter because people in Korea rarely wear hanbok anyways. I feel that while some people might call certain people who dress up as other races ignorant or racially insensitive, it could also be interpreted as their interest for other races.

    Reply
  6. hadibw2013

    This is interesting! I personally will not think that costumes can reflect a deeper meaning such as this. Many people just pick any costume randomly without knowing the meaning of what they are wearing. Your post does somehow tells me the importance of costumes for many people; especially when the costume represent any culture and thus we should not look the costume as an attribute that has no meaning.

    Reply

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