For the last three years, my costume has been Disney’s Esmeralda.
I was really excited about it when I came up with it because she’s literally the ONLY Disney character I can truly pull off looking like. The skin tone, hair, body type, everything! I thought it was perfect.
So I went to Value Village and found the best pieces I could find — ironically, the piece that made the outfit so good was an Indian lengha that I cut up. I spent about $70 (the most I’ve ever spent as a broke drama student on a costume) and I wore it with pride. I got lots of compliments on it, too.
Then last year, I read a post on cultural appropriation from Everyday Feminism, and it made me think quite a bit about costumes.
I mean, I’d always felt it would be weird if anyone who isn’t Native American dressed as Pocahontas.
I knew that people dressing in traditional Native Indian costumes for Halloween is offensive, because it’s clearly using someone’s culture as a “costume” and ignoring that it’s an important cultural thing for actual, real people.
But I still felt confused — I thought, Pocahontas is a character, and that’s her costume. What if you genuinely looked like the character? If you’re dressing like a specific character, is that bad? What if it wasn’t a bad representation of a given culture?
I learned from reading and thinking about cultural appropriation myself that it’s a very heated topic and there doesn’t always seem to be a simple answer.
I reached out to a friend who is from Romania to ask her how she felt about me dressing as Esmeralda, and she never responded… so I decided to find a different costume, just to be safe.
It didn’t work.
The night of my Halloween party, it fell apart and I couldn’t wear it.
So I’m a little embarrassed and ashamed to say that I stuck with my Esmeralda costume for one more year… and that it was as recent as last year.
This year, I did some more reading on cultural appropriation.
Brita Long points out that saying your costume is of a character isn’t enough — because the character is still portrayed in a racist way.
Esmeralda is one of her examples:
“The Hunchback of Notre Dame overtly sexualizes Esmeralda and uses the word ‘gypsy,’ even while attempting a positive portrayal of Romani.”
I still felt conflicted — in the Disney movie, Esmeralda is totally over-sexualized, but I think in this particular case it makes sense. In the original story, Esmeralda does use her sexuality a lot to manipulate people.
However, calling her a “gypsy” might still be offensive. I don’t know much about the history of the word, so I’m trusting Brita here.
Either way, dressing as a Esmeralda’s costume is still dressing as something out of Romani culture, badly represented or not.
Once I realized that, it all made sense. It’s pretty much as annoying as it would be to me if someone decided to dress as in a sari and call it a Halloween costume, or dress as an Hindu god or goddess and say the same. Saris and Hindu gods goddesses are truly part of Indian cultures (though obviously Hinduism is not the only Indian religion).
They’re not costumes.
So while I might look like Esmeralda, I’m not Romani and her character also might not be the best representation of Romanis either.
I’m really upset with myself for having worn that costume as recently as last year and not realizing it was wrong.
I suppose nobody’s perfect. All I can do is learn from my mistakes. I realize now that to dress as such is definitely cultural appropriation.
Just because I’m frustrated that there is not a single princess that I can dress like and actually look like does not mean I can pick any character from any old culture and go, “Hey, I look like her, so I can be her!”
Obviously, I won’t let it happen ever again.
However, discussing it with friends and with Brita revealed a few things to me.
1. No matter what race or ethnicity you are, you need to be aware of cultural appropriation.
You just do. Everyone needs to be aware of what they’re doing, and be sensitive.
To keep it simple, just don’t dress as any other culture than your own.
And when in doubt… don’t! Unless you want to be ashamed, like I am.
2. A lot of white people do not understand why people of colour don’t want to dress as their princesses.
That sounds really angry, but I promise it isn’t. It’s just a thing I’ve noticed.
Pretty much everyone I’ve talked to that is white has said, “You can be whatever princess you want, Sareeta!” when I’ve explained that there is no princess for me.
Look, I’ve always wanted to be Belle. Literally always. Ever since I saw the movie for the first time. (When I was really young I told my mom that I wanted my high school graduation dress to be Belle’s dress, and then when I graduated and randomly remembered that, I was genuinely mad at her for not reminding me. Seriously.)
But even if I dressed as Belle for Halloween, I would not look like her.
I would look like a person in a dress. People would recognize it if I nailed the yellow (or blue) dress exactly, but they’d all know that a white woman with wavy brown locks could pull it off way better.
And you know what? They’d be right.
Because while Belle and every other white princess out there might be relatable and interesting as a character, they do not look like me.
I know that it’s “just” a costume and I should wear whatever I want because whatever, but to be honest, no. When people tell me “Sweetie, you can be Belle! You can!” they are being beyond condescending, even when they don’t mean to.
Skin colour does matter.
It drives me nuts when people say I can be whatever princess I want, because no, I can’t, for a very simple reason — my skin.
Maybe you can, if you’re white, so you just feel like everyone else can too, but it’s just not true.
Honestly, even as a kid it felt fake when my friends of colour would dress as Ariel, or Cinderella.
If I do want to dress like one of the princesses, I have to just ignore that I’m not white, and I’m past trying to do that. I’ve spent enough of my life fighting between fitting in with white Canadian culture and my own Indian culture at home. I can’t change myself to fit in anymore. I won’t ignore that my skin colour is a huge part of who I am.
So no, being a white princess is not an option for me.
3. Disney needs to get it together and have more diverse characters.
The Princess and the Frog was a huge deal because now there is finally a black princess. Truly.
But as much as black people need movies for them, they are not the only minority. So much of the time, I feel my culture (and many Asian cultures) are just left out of discussions about race and culture. Where are the Japanese stories? Korean? Anything that isn’t Chinese, because Mulan happened?
And obviously, the one that means the most to me… Indian?!
Come on, Disney. It’s taking you way too long to get with the program.
Before y’all get all up in my face about this, yes, I am beyond excited for Moana! Finally, a character I can identify with!
I identify as Indian mostly, but my mom is from Fiji and I am also part Hawaiian. I have some Polynesian in me, so I’m like a child with how excited I am. (I’ve totally had friends look at me like I’m really weird for how excited I am — and I get excited for lots of Disney movies.)
I never saw a character that looked like me when growing up. Jasmine was as close as it got, but she’s Arab, not Indian. This is just huge for me.
So sure, I have one character that I could try to dress up as… one whose movie isn’t even out yet.
But still… Disney needs to get it together.
Have you ever had an embarrassing Halloween costume?
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