A few weeks ago, my secret boyfriend, Chris Hemsworth, shared an Instagram photo saying he stands with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe who are fighting against the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL). Now there’s plenty to talk about in terms of the DAPL, and it’s well worth educating yourself on this issue, but what caught my eye (after I admired my boyfriend’s Thor costume) was Hemsworth’s caption for the photo. In it, he describes attending a New Year’s Eve party last year wearing the “traditional dress of the First Nations people.” His statement jumped out at me because just days before I’d had one of those awkward moments I sometimes have as a privileged, white parent trying to raise good kids in a diverse world. Maybe you’ve experienced this, too? You know, that time your kid did or said something racist or sexist or just amazingly spoiled or privileged, and you had to Shut. It. Down.
Is my child actually horrible? Is she racist? What does this mean about what I’ve been teaching her?
I don’t think she is racist, especially if we go by the definition put forth by The Anti-Defamation League whereby racism is defined as “the belief that a particular race is superior or inferior to another, that a person’s social and moral traits are predetermined by his or her inborn biological characteristics.” This definition is limited but serves the purpose of this post.
My daughter, Libby, has never said she is superior to anyone because of her whiteness; she has never said another child is inferior to her because of their skin color. She has been lucky to have attended schools all her life with children of color, and we are teaching her to treat all people fairly and kindly. But if I’m being honest, Libby’s actions, however innocent in intent, are sometimes racist.
Just because we’re teaching our children about fairness and kindness, doesn’t mean they always know how to act fairly or kindly.
On the day in question, Libby, like Chris Hemsworth, thought it would be fun to dress up like a Native American (I’m using the term Native American or American Indian here. Generally, it’s preferred to use the name of specific tribal nations). She had made herself an “Indian crown” and proudly showed it off to me when I picked her up from a class. I asked her to tell me about the crown, so I could basically stall for time until I could think of the best way to respond. She shared that she’d read a book about “Indians” at school and now wanted to dress up like one. This made sense to Libby. We read books about many different characters and Libby dresses up like those characters all the time. She’s been everything from a pirate queen to a monkey, and our costume box is filled to the brim. Why not dress up like an “Indian” too?
“You can’t wear that crown, Libby. You can’t because it’s hurtful to people,” I told my daughter.
Wide-eyed, Libby asked why. So I tried to explain the difference between dressing up as a Hermione Granger and dressing up as a Native American. Headdresses, I explained, are special to native peoples, and they have profound cultural meaning. When we make a paper headdress or put on a store-bought headdress as a costume, we’re taking a sacred symbol and treating it as something that’s just for fun. Since Hermione is a fictional character, from a fictional school, wearing Gryffindor robes and a Sorting Hat would not offend anyone (Slytherin House fans aside). Libby’s paper “Indian crown” though was not fun. “It’s racist and hurtful,” I told Libby, “and I don’t want you to act that way.” Cultural appropriation is a challenging concept to explain.
In his post, Hemsworth apologizes for his actions at the “Lone Ranger” New Year’s Eve party and goes on to say there’s a need for “a deeper understanding of the complex and extensive issues facing indigenous communities.” I hope that my own conversation with Libby at age 7 won’t just mean that she knows not to wear an offensive Halloween costume in the future, but that she will gain the deeper understanding of cultural appropriation that my boyfriend, Hemsworth, mentions.
Part of the effort in our own family to understand indigenous people further is to understand their rich histories. My husband shares with the girls what he’s learned from Charles C. Mann’s book 1491, about the history of America before Columbus (Mann’s Atlantic article is a good starting place if you’re not quite up for the whole book). We want the girls to know that it’s a mistake to think that native peoples don’t have a history independent of their relationship with Europeans. There are stories too about the Abenaki, the native people of Vermont, that I want to share with my kiddos. And I’ve also asked my librarian for recommendations of picture books that highlight the lives of native people. We talk too about what we see about Native Americans in the world and in the news as it’s easy for kids to get the impression that Native Americans are ancient history versus a vibrant people alive today.
This Thanksgiving, you might find us talking about the history and significance of the holiday in a kid-friendly way or reading a book about Native Americans. You might also catch me taking a peek at my secret boyfriend, Chris Hemsworth’s, Instagram feed (he’s the cutest dad, amiright?). You might even find us making a holiday craft to celebrate the day. What you won’t find at our table though is anyone dressed up like an Indian.
List of resources:
- Native Americans Review Thanksgiving Storybooks – BuzzFeed offers this funny video on how Native Americans view board books on the holiday
- Native Culture Should Be Taught Year Round– Teaching Tolerance is my go-to source for educational materials on diversity and equity
- American Indians in Children’s Literature– American Indians in Children’s Literature (AICL) offers “critical perspectives and analysis of indigenous peoples in children’s and young adult books, the school curriculum, popular culture, and society.”
- National Museum of the American Indian– If you’re traveling near DC or NYC for the holidays, why not check them out?
- Native Now: Contemporary Indian Stories– Recommendations for contemporary Native American Fiction