Search results for racist costumes

Cross-posted at Scientopia.

A couple of days ago I posted a video about stereotypes of Native Americans in video games, including the Hot Indian Princess. Though the video discussed video games specifically, these tropes are common in other area of pop culture as well. Dolores R. sent in a great example. Over at Beyond Buckskin, Jessica Metcalfe posted about the 2011 Caribana Parade in Toronto. This year the parade theme was Native America, including various sections such as Amazon Warriors, Lost City of the Aztecs, Brazilian Amerindians…and Tribal Princesses. Here’s a Tribal Princess costume provided by one band, Callaloo (it’s now sold out).

A commenter on Metcalfe’s post takes exception with criticisms of these costumes and the parade theme, saying,

[This is a] celebration of historic alliances between African Diaspora peoples and Native peoples. In New Orleans, the tradition was a specific response to racist laws that placed Native and other POC communities in a common frame of reference. This tradition is almost 200 years old among Caribbean/Diaspora people in North America…you are making a tremendous mistake by attacking a part of Afro-Caribbean culture as if this was the same as an expression of White/Euro privilege.

So the argument is that this can’t be problematic cultural appropriation or propagation of the sexualized Indian Princess trope because it is part of an event meant to celebrate and recognize the histories and cultures of groups that have themselves been the target of discrimination and political/cultural exclusion. Certainly there is an important cultural and historical context there that, the commenter argues, distinguishes these costumes from, say, the current fad of “tribal” clothing in fashion.

And yet, that argument seems to discursively claim a right to represent Native Americans in any way without being subject to criticisms of stereotyping or cultural appropriation. For instance, the Apache were not a Caribbean tribe (though the Lipan Apache moved far into southeastern Texas by the late 1700s, coming into regular contact with Texas Gulf tribes). Does this sexualized “Apache” costume, as imagined by non-Apaches and sold to the general public, differ greatly from other appropriations and representations of Native American culture and identity as fashion statement?

This feels a little like a different version of the “But we’re honoring you!” argument used in efforts to defend Native American sports mascots — that any concern the viewer has is only due to their lack of understanding of the reason for the depiction of Native Americans, not because that depiction might be, in fact, problematic.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Re-posted at Drawing On Indians.

Rob Walker (author of the fascinating book Buying In: What We Buy and Who We Are) sent me a link to a post at Drinkin’ and Dronin’ of a 1954 Levi Strauss brochure about “western Indian lore.” It’s a nice round-up of stereotypes and appropriations of Native Americans. We start off with an angry, bare-chested (and Levis-clad) man with a tomahawk, shield, moccasins, and headdress; I’d guess he’s supposed to be a warrior doing a war dance:

Then some descriptions of items associated with different tribes and the obligatory broken English (“just want ‘um”) familiar to anyone who watched The Lone Ranger and paid attention to Tonto:

I have no idea how accurate their descriptions of “unusual Indian weapons” are, but the overall tone of the brochure doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence.

And we have a lesson on “the Indian sign language,” the origins of which are “lost in the mists of time”:

Related posts: Potowatamis didn’t have a word for “global business center,” “discovering” Newfoundland, appropriation of Native Americans in fashion, teaching kids how to be American Indians, marketing the Vancouver Olympics, ice skaters dress up like Australian aborigines, native cultures in Avatar, Poca-Hotness, Indian costume for your dog, Indian Halloween costumes, Disney depicts Native Americans, “my skin is dark but my heart is white,” American Indians on t-shirts, sports mascots, Playmobil’s American Indian family, Howe Nissan’s American Indian statue, the “crying Indian” anti-litter PSA, Native Americans in Italian anti-immigration posters, and more American Indian dolls.

Also check out Adrienne K.’s blog Native Appropriations for lots of examples.

Adrienne K., who posts at Native Appropriations, let us know about the book Make It Work! North American Indians: The Hands-On Approach to History. Her friend Katie found it in the 4th-grade classroom library at the school where she teaches on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota:


As posted on Native Appropriations, Katie said,

The book purports to give a history of Native Americans and a guide to Native crafts, but what it ends up being is a veritable handbook for white kids to “play Indian.”  All the photos are of white kids dressed up as Indians!  I can’t find one picture (other than the historical ones, of course) of a Native American child.  Even more disturbingly, the descriptions make it sound as if these white kids are authentic representations of Indian clothing, etc.

Katie found it particularly odd that this book was in a classroom on a Sioux reservation. Some pages from the book:



The information is often rather vague. For instance, on one page a description of the Seminole tribe says, “The Seminole were a group formed by Creek Indians and other people from different areas.” Um, ok…that’s less than helpful.

In this image, Adrienne points out that children dressed up as a Seminole and a “Plains Warrior” (?) are playing stickball, as though the game was played by all American Indian groups (rather than mostly confined to the Southeastern region of the U.S.):


As Adrienne mentions, throughout the book, only the past tense is used, as though Native Americans are relics of the past, no longer in existence (or at least, no longer interesting).

I have seen lots of books like this. In fact, I was once given a book like this when I was a kid. At the time I thought it was awesome. The books all seem to have a common theme: American Indians are part of history in the same way that, say, the ancient Greeks [note: several readers object that ancient Greeks aren’t gone, either, since there are still Greek people around–see below] are — something to study that is interesting but no longer exists. Native cultures are presented as neat art projects for non-Native kids to create, all under the guise of learning about the history of Native Americans. But as we see here, any educational benefit the books might aim at is undermined by the conflation of many different groups and cultural features into one or two generalized “Indians” who end up combining elements of Native societies that were separated geographically and temporally.

And almost all of these books present the “Plains Warrior,” as though there was a single Plains culture made up entirely of war-lovers decked out in feather headdresses. Even as a kid I wondered what a Plains Indian was, since I’d never heard of a tribe called the Plains.

Part of what is going on here is the romanticization of Native Americans as courageous, noble, but ultimately tragic figures of the past. Modern Native Americans, those living now and wearing blue-jeans and t-shirts and perhaps eating Wonder Bread as often as homemade fry bread, just aren’t interesting. They don’t fit into our romanticized narrative. They aren’t authentic. Authentic American Indians were culturally distinct…and disappeared about the time Geronimo became a member of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. And that makes the cultural appropriation acceptable, because it’s referring to people in the past. Creating a “Plains outfit” with burlap and a stapler is no more problematic than using a sheet to create a Roman toga.

UPDATE: As I said above, a number of commenters have asked how it’s any different to dress up like Native Americans than it is to dress up like ancient Greeks, seeing as how there are still Greeks around. I think there is a distinction. When people think about ancient Greek civilization, no one is then making Greeks who live today invisible. We do not imply that Greeks disappeared because a particular Greek society waned in influence. And we certainly don’t imply that ancient Greeks were the same as every other European civilization, with a few sartorial differences here or there. We also don’t suggest that anyone living in Greece today who doesn’t, say, worship Zeus is inauthentic, not a “real” Greek. People living in Greece aren’t stuck in time the way many people who romanticize American Indians see them.

NEW (Apr. ’10)!  Jessica S. and Lucia M.M. sent in examples of “teepees” sold for fun.

First, from Jessica, a teepee by Land of Nod (a sister company of Crate and Barrell).  The copy reads: “Our roomy teepee is the perfect place for peewees to powwow.”

Second, from Lucia, a teepee sold by Design Within Reach:


Related posts: racist mascots, Canada’s “indigenous Olympics“, ice skaters dress up like aborigines, indigenous cultures in Avatar (spoiler alert), Halloween costumes, defining “Indian art”, “my skin is dark but my heart is white“, anachronistic images of Native Americans, “My Indian name is…“, the sports mascot Chief Illini, Playmobil’s Native American family, Howe Nissan dealership statue, the “crying Indian” anti-littering PSA, Italian political party uses images of American Indians to oppose immigration, and a Native American toy set.

A few days ago, a mini-controversy erupted when this vidcap from the sports network RDS started making the rounds. Here’s the Deadspin article. Two Montréal Canadiens fans {nicknamed Habitants or Habs} donned the jersey of a hot prospect, P. K. Subban, who happens to be Jamaican Canadian. They also painted their faces black and wore afro wigs.

Toronto Mike blogged about the incident and one of the Habs fans came on to comment. The words got pretty heated, but in the end, the fan apologized and Habs and Leafs fans once again could resume their hockey-based hatred of one another.

What struck me as interesting was how this drama played out. The French language cable network covering the 11 March game against the Edmonton Oilers chose to air 10 seconds of the two friends. Was the intent to be controversial? Was the intent to be a facepalm moment?  The back-and-forth on Toronto Mike’s blog was interesting, as the polarizing effect of race brought up assumptions about the Habs fan and his intent by commenters. In the end, I thought the Habs fan handled himself well, given how people were responding and what was being said. Toronto Mike did a good job of not divulging the fan’s name. This was one of those rare moments where Web 2.0 seemed to actually foster a dialogue and didn’t degenerate into a protracted flame war. That said, it wasn’t always pretty, but a lot prettier than what one typically sees on news article comments on issues of race, which are often tantamount to text equivalent strangers yelling at each other at the top of their lungs in an open hall.

Here on ThickCulture, we have examined race in the post-racial era. Racism isn’t dead, it’s just gotten to a late stage where there is a consciousness about what is offensive and debates of this now enter into the public discourse space. I get a sense that race gets so intertwined with speech and knowledge structures that it often becomes a confusing and convoluted morass for many. This impinging upon liberties of speech, in terms of what one can and cannot say or should and should not say, creates a tension, which may result in a backlash.

Where are the lines in the post-racial era? Here in Toronto, last fall there was a party where a group of guys dressed up as the Jamaican bobsled team, depicted in the film, Cool Runnings {1993}. This story caused a stir and points were argued through social media comments on whether or not this was racist.

Four guys darkened their skin and one guy lightened his. The Torontoist chronicles how the story unfolded and offers a tutorial on what blackface is and its cultural significance. The students offered their explanation for their choice of costume:

First and foremost we would like to apologize if anyone was offended…Throughout our childhood, Cool Runnings was something we reflected on with fond memories and therefore in the process [of] choosing Halloween costumes, seemed to be a promising candidate. With this idea in mind, we took notice of how the primary cast, consisting of four black characters and one white character, coincided with our group ratio of four white and one black member. This sparked the idea to add another comedic element to the costume, and have the black student go as John Candy and the white students going as the four bobsledders. At this point, several of us was already of aware of what blackfacing was and therefore took out various means of investigation to further our knowledge of the topic and ensure that what we were doing be doing may not be considered similar in anyway. The conclusion that we came to that simply painting our faces dark brown would not be a portrayal of blackface….understand that we did not act in a negative or stereotypical manner [at the party]. We acted ourselves the whole night, and did not internalize the characters.

Here’s the theatrical trailer for Cool Runnings:

University of Toronto Sociology professor Rinaldo Walcott offered a different take:

I think that in particular [Cool Runnings] became a part of the popular culture imagination of [white] Canadians in a way that [they] took responsibility for that film as though it was somehow an extension of them. And one of the reasons that I think Canadians identified with that film so deeply is because that film weathered something that many white Canadians come to believe strongly—that black people don’t actually belong here. That we are an insertion into a landscape that is not actually an landscape where we naturally fit.

For black people who understand this history [of blackface], Cool Runnings was never a funny film; it in fact replicated all of the techniques of blackface. It is in fact one of the ways that we have come to see that blackface does not require painting of blackface anymore. Just look at the work of Marlon Riggs. We know that in North America there is a deep resonance around producing images of black people that make black people look disgusting. Cool Runnings is a milder version of that. So we should ask… why do they remember Cool Runnings so fondly?

Post-racial means navigating these choppy waters where intent collides head-on with history and its interpretations. Not to get all postmodern here, but while the metanarrative is dead, social media is a site where clashing mini-narratives that structure perceptions of the world, culture, society, etc. battle it out. I think the fellow Contexts blog Sociological Images is a social media site where clashing mini-narratives are de rigueur. I’m wondering if we will ever “get over” issues of race. I’m beginning to think we won’t, given globalization, etc., but perhaps it’s due to the fact that what this is really all about is identity.

What troubles me more than this is when the “right” language is used by individuals doing so strategically. The talk is talked, but the walk isn’t walked. That’s a topic for another blog.


Kenneth M. Kambara interests and expertise include social media, innovation strategy, environmental sustainability, business and marketing, sociology, urbanism, critical theory and economic sociology.  His insights (and unexpected pop culture segues) can be found on the fellow Contexts blog, ThickCulture, and on his own blog at rhizomicon. Like every good social media guru, he also tweets.

If you would like to write a post for Sociological Images, please see our Guidelines for Guest Bloggers.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Reader Jennifer E.B. alerted us to the Dutch tradition of Zwarte Piet, “Black Pete.”  Jennifer writes:

I grew up in a town that was overwhelmingly Dutch.  Most people in town had Dutch anscestry (though not my family), there was a Dutch festival each spring, and before Christmas there was a Sinterklaas parade (Dutch Santa Claus).  When we were there for Christmas this year both of my daughters received a chocolate in the shape of their initial in their stockings from my sister.  I had let them have some of the chocolate several times before the background picture on the box caught my eye.

What Jennifer saw was what looked like a character in blackface (product found here):


Jennifer did some digging and she discovered that Zwarte Piet is a traditional Christmas Sinterklaas character in the Netherlands.

Lulu Helder at the Museum of Racist Memorobilia explains:

The role is usually played by a white woman or man who wears black or brown grease paint on their faces (Saint Nicholas is always performed by a man). He or she wears large golden earrings, a curly wig and red lipstick. Right now they wear brown grease paint more often because “the blackness frightens children”.

Once the transformation is completed, a change in voice and behaviour usually follow. He or she will speak improper Dutch with a low voice and a Surinamese accent.

Below the jump are some pictures (not safe for work):


Well, it’s October, and that means Halloween is coming. It also means we can expect to see the unending variety of typically racist Halloween costumes that pop up every year. You too can be Oriental, just for one night. Here a few ridiculous ones, with a hair-centric theme…

The above costume item was recently spotted at a Party City. Want to be a “China Man” this Halloween? Apparently, all it takes is a crappy-looking moustache. It’s easy. Just affix this nasty piece of hair on your upper lip, and there you go, instant China Man! Adding some fu to your manchu. (Thanks, Brandon.)

But hey, why stop there? There are other fun and easy ways to be Chinese. Just try on the Chinese Man wig, “an ancient style with bald front and long pigtail in the back.” But even at the low sale price of $41.48, the Chinese Man wig might just be a little outside your budget. That’s okay, because the Bargain Chinese Man wig is also available for just $22.05. Because nobody should miss out on the racist mockery.

Speaking of bargains, how about this kickass Oriental Guy wig? The attention to detail is just tremendous. I swear, every Oriental Guy I know wears his hair just like this! That’s amazing. Wearing this crappy piece of mess on your head, you will be the coolest Oriental Guy at the office Halloween party.

Finally, my favorite one. The Old Chinese Man wig! I have no idea what exactly makes this monstrosity “Chinese.” But it apparently comes in white, gray, brown and black. And according to the website, this wig also works for “eccentric recluse” and “prospector.” Yes, I’m scratching my head too. But the fun doesn’t end there. There are just so many ways to get your Oriental Mystique on! It’s going to be another great Halloween. That’s racist!


Angry Asian Man blogs at Angry Asian Man.  And he’s not as angry as you might think.

If you would like to write a post for Sociological Images, please see our Guidelines for Guest Bloggers.

As a fan of both sci fi and pre-WWII pop culture, I naturally have a lot of affection for Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon. There’s much to be enjoyed about the original comic strip (which basically invented the style that led to the creation of super-hero comics), the 1936 serial starring Buster Crabbe, and even the 1980 movie, which I’ve mentioned before.  The 1970’s softcore porn version, Flesh Gordon, is also a lot of fun.  Although the various incarnations get pretty complicated, the basic story is of a regular guy from Earth who ends up on a bizarre alien planet, where he inadvertently becomes a hero in the struggle against Emperor Ming, the tyrant who has been keeping the whole planet under his thumb.  With the recent rebirth of big budget sci fi and comic book adaptations, the time almost seems perfect for a new Flash Gordon movie.  It’s never quite been done cinematic justice, and the basic story would hold up well to a modern interpretation.

Unfortunately, there’s one rather big problem: Emperor Ming.  As the name implies, Flash’s nemesis is an unreconstructed “yellow peril” Asian stereotype.  Despite being an alien, he’s undeniably portrayed as the worst sort of racist view of a Chinese ruler.  He’s a vindictive, inscrutable tyrant with an affection for ornate finery and a lecherous eye for (white) Earth women.  In the original comic he has bright yellow skin, long fingernails, a high-collared robe, and a Fu Manchu goatee.

Unsurprisingly, the serial was faithful to this version, casting a white actor named Charles Middleton and putting him in the same kind of “yellowface” make-up that was common in those days for portrayals of Asian characters.  Of course, the actual skin tone was irrelevant in a monochromatic film.

Concerns about racism never even entered anyone’s mind until the 1980 film.  By that time, it was necessary to be at least a little racially sensitive (but not too much).  The answer was to leave Ming basically unchanged, while pretending there was never anything Asian about him.  Swedish actor Max von Sydow was given a look that was immediately recognizable as the classic Ming, but with just enough of the Asian elements replaced with a more futuristic, “alien” look for plausible deniability.

The animated versions of Ming, in both the Filmation’s Flash Gordon series and the later Defenders of the Earth, took this idea a step further.  Ming was given green skin, as if to say, “See, this guy’s clearly an alien!  How could you accuse him of representing an Earthly race?”

Even with these attempts at a more extraterrestrial appearance, however, anyone who’s at all familiar with longstanding racist depictions of Asian men can recognize Ming as an embodiment of that unfortunate tradition.  Meanwhile, more sympathetic characters who are clearly of the same race as Ming, such as his traitorous daughter Aurra and her lover Prince Barin, were unambiguously white.  They did have yellow skin in the original comics, but even then they were less recognizable Asian than Ming.  Later portrayals, even the cartoons in which Ming is green, show them as totally caucasian.  The message seems to be that the more evil you are, the more alien you are, and alien in this case looks a lot like Chinese.

Naturally, when the Sci Fi Channel decided to adapt Flash Gordon for TV in 2007, they were eager to avoid anything that could be perceived as racism.  Their answer to the Ming problem was to completely remake the character, removing every bit of his previous look to create a very white sort of fascist dictator.

There was a lot wrong with this adaptation (it was unwatchably boring, for one), but one of the complaints against it was that Ming was lackluster and missing everything that had made him a memorable villain.  Regardless of his origins, we expect certain things from Ming: a bald head, facial hair, an ornate robe.  Exoticism.  So what is to be done?  There can be no Flash Gordon without Ming the Merciless, but it’s possible that Ming is a character too wrapped up in racism to ever escape.

In my idle moments I’ve given some thought to how Hollywood could pull off a successful Flash Gordon revamp, and the only idea I have for Ming is this: don’t run away from his faux-Chinese heritage; push it in the other direction.  Cast a Chinese actor as Ming, and make Aurra, Barin, and the rest of their people equally Chinese.  Eliminate Earth entirely, setting the story in the future and making Flash’s planet one that was colonized by the United States, while Ming’s planet was colonized by China.  You don’t need exposition for this- just imply it with production design.  For Ming’s costumes, create a futuristic variation on what Chinese emperors actually wore, rather than just an American’s simplistic idea of the look.  Do away with Ming’s predatory behavior toward Flash’s girlfriend.  It’s a creepy and dated element regardless of his race.  Finally, sweep away the blond=good/dark=bad undertone of the original by making Flash Gordon black.  After all, it would make a great role for Will Smith, a charismatic action hero who’s been hurting for a sci fi property that’s actually worth watching.

As for the role of Ming himself, there are plenty of aging action stars who could pull it off.  Given the inevitable campiness of the project, Jackie Chan might work.  I’d suggest Chow Yun Fat, except that it could be hard to distinguish his version of Ming from the character he played in the last Pirates of the Caribbean movie.

But would this be enough to redeem the character and the franchise?  Maybe privileged white fans like me need to accept that some characters and stories have too much bigotry in their history to ever be redeemed.  After all, nobody is trying to create an acceptable new version of Uncle Remus (although I say this with hesitation, because it seems possible that someone in a locked room at Disney might right now be doing that very thing).  If there is to be no more Flash Gordon, I’ll accept that, but I do wish someone could find a way to solve the problem of Emperor Ming.


Dustin Collins is pursuing an MA at the Ohio University School of Film.  When he has time between classes and screenings, he blogs about film, pop culture, and Betty Boop at okaywithme.

If you would like to write a post for Sociological Images, please see our Guidelines for Guest Bloggers.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

To see where Sociological Images and its authors are appearing around the internet and in print, visit our list of Interviews (podcasts, radio, and print), Reviews, Essays and Posts published elsewhere, and instances in which we’ve been Quoted (in news articles, industry pages, etc.).