After some deliberation the Stephenville Figure Skating Club (SFSC) has decided it will no longer consider outfitting some of its young skaters in costumes depicting Indigenous people for an upcoming event.
Responding to a request for comment after two members of the Mi’kmaq community told The Independent they were concerned about some of the costume ideas being shared by a skating coach on the club’s Facebook page, the SFSC issued a statement saying that “in order to avoid any unnecessary conflict” it “will not be using costumes or music that depict or focus on any cultural, ethnic or Indigenous groups in our upcoming year end skating show.”
On Feb. 17 several images of children wearing costumes depicting various national, cultural and ethnic groups were posted on the skating club’s Facebook page, prefaced by a message indicating they were options for the young skaters in their year-end skating event.
One image depicted a costume called “Ever-so-cute-Eskimos”, featuring a young girl outfitted in a “light brown fur trimmed hooded mini dress” with “matching boot tops trimmed with faux fur,” the accompanying item description read. “To add a bit more character, the hem features a cute Eskimo design.”
Another costume, called “Interesting Indigenous”, featured a young girl in faux leather regalia, wearing moccasins and a feather in a long black wig.
Other proposed costumes for the figure skaters included an “Adorable Asian Dancer”, “Movin’ Mexicans”, and “Glamorous Gypsies” — all of them depicting stereotypes of marginalized groups.
Kelly Anne Butler, Grenfell Campus’ Aboriginal Resources Officer and a member of the Bay St. George Mi’kmaw Cultural Revival Committee, told The Independent she was approached by two students last week who were “very concerned” by the costume ideas being sharing on the SFSC Facebook page.
Butler then wrote to the coach who shared the images, expressing her concern and asking politely if the club would reconsider its theme and costumes. That coach then forwarded the request on to the club executive. The executive was also contacted by Arlene Blanchard-White, a fancy shawl dancer and ward councillor for the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation.
Butler is concerned the costumes “reduce entire groups or cultures into one usually inaccurate, one-dimensional fantasy stereotype, and then present it,” she explained, adding that the more such stereotypical images are presented, “that’s how we end up with people not understanding the diversity that is within different cultures.”
The ‘Interesting Indigenous’ costume, Butler said, “kind of sets your mindset in a specific time period with a specific image of an Indigenous person, and it takes away the reality that there are people everywhere who are Indigenous who are working next to you, who are going to school with you, who live across the street from you — and it reduces their culture into this kind of caricature that isn’t really based in reality.”
Blanchard-White told The Independent that as a First Nations person and a dancer who wears regalia to powwows, “by letting children wear these costumes…they’re not what we wear as regalia but [instead] mimic an Indigenous person.
“For me, when I put on my regalia, I put on my regalia for ceremony, and I pray in my regalia and it’s a very spiritual thing for me,” she explained. “So for these people to allow the children to dress and mimic the Aboriginal culture, it’s not teaching them the right lessons that they should be teaching them. They shouldn’t be learning the ceremonial items unless they know what it’s meant for, and my fear is that it’s going to continue with the racism over the years because they never know why they shouldn’t wear it.”
A learning opportunity
Both Butler and Blanchard-White insisted they don’t want to blame or shame individuals in the organization and that they both respectfully asked the club to reconsider its costume choices and acknowledge an understanding of why the costumes are offensive and hurtful.
“I know they don’t have the intention of offending, but this is the perfect opportunity to be able to educate people that this sort of thing is really offensive,” said Butler. “And even though I’m surprised that in 2016 people aren’t more aware of this, obviously they’re not.
“I think it’s simply just a lack of knowledge, and really the companies that produce these costumes put it all out there, and I’m imagining some parent who’s involved with the skating club is looking for some way to tie together some themes and they come across this website with all these costumes. The skate club is not making up the costumes — they’re going into this online retail portal and finding them there. That’s the source of the issue, is that the costumes are made at all.”
The Independent contacted the owner of Oya Costumes, the Montreal-based company behind the costume depicting a young girl in what the title “Eskimo” indicates is supposed to mimic an Inuit person.
Faten Hodroge said she doesn’t think the term “Eskimo”, or the costumes offered on her company’s website, are offensive, and that various interpretations of costumes depicting cultural, national or ethnic groups are relative and of equal merit.
“It’s not a new issue…this has been going on for a couple years now,” she said when contacted by phone last week.
“People who don’t want these costumes, they don’t have to buy [them]. But we don’t feel they should be imposing their view on the others. If everybody shared their view in Canada we wouldn’t be selling [costumes]; that means nobody would come and buy [them]. So unfortunately a lot of people don’t feel that it’s offensive — they feel they’re celebrating that culture.”
The argument that costumes depicting Indigenous people are not harmful, and that they in fact celebrate Indigenous groups, has been widely refuted by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.
In its statement the SFSC said its original ‘Around the World’ theme “was intended to celebrate diversity, culture and traditions from around the world.”
But Butler and Blanchard-White say despite the club and others’ good intentions, efforts to celebrate cultural diversity often end up further stereotyping and marginalizing members of already marginalized groups.
“Anytime you’re talking about cultures…and you want to honour them or celebrate them, the very first thing you do is contact those groups,” said Butler. “And here in western Newfoundland we have several groups you can contact…and find out, first, if it’s even appropriate, and how you would go about doing that.”
Butler said the figure skating club did not respond to her concerns or acknowledge any problem with their initial costume selection.
Responding to the club’s statement to The Independent, specifically the part about abandoning the costumes to “avoid unnecessary conflict,” Butler said it seems like the club is trying to “put the blame back on us for causing a problem that they just want to avoid.
“When students came to me with the pictures, two things that we would like to have happened were that, one, that [the club doesn’t] go forward with the theme and the costumes,” she said. “But, number two, that they understand why it’s a problem.
“So one half of that has been achieved, which is really good — that they’re not perpetuating that to other people, and especially to children. But it’s unfortunate that they don’t seem to get it based upon the statement.”
The Independent requested further comment from the SFSC and club President Suzie McIntosh on Butler and Blanchard-White’s specific concerns. Neither responded to the requests.
“Whenever something like this happens there’s an opportunity to just do the right thing,” said Butler. “People complain, people who are a part of those groups, and you can just do the right thing — you can just say: ‘You know what, I really don’t understand it, but if this is what these people who I’m trying to depict are telling me, then it’s probably something I should listen to.’”
Butler said she’s proud of the students who came to her with their concerns but did not want to confront the club on their own.
“If nobody ever speaks up and says anything then we’re in trouble,” she said.
Blanchard-White said she’s also happy the students raised the concern, and that it’s a good sign young people are calling out instances, intended or unintended, of racism and discrimination.
“It’s youth speaking up,” she said. “There’s kids in university who are being made fun of because they’re Indigenous…and there’s stigma that goes with it. So if we can eliminate this at a very young age, moving into the future we’ll all be much better off.”