Halloween is a dreadful time of year for me. Not because I’m scared of ghosts or scary movies, but because I’m almost always guaranteed to see someone badly dressed up as me—or rather, my people. I’m Indigenous, and growing up, I’ve come across countless people dressed in “Native American” costumes, whether it’s a “sexy Pocahontas” or a member of the Village People. Without fail, they’re always dressed in cheap, polyester buckskin outfits, a full-on headdress, and some sort of war paint. They look nothing like the things my family wears, let alone the beautiful regalia that they dance in at powwows. As a result, Halloween for me has turned into a sobering reminder of how most people perceive Indigenous people—and other cultures—in general: as an artifact of the past, or a fictitious group that they’ve seen once or twice in a movie.
Both because retailers sell offensive costumes and consumers wear them, cultural appropriation and racism abound on Halloween. Reports of Blackface has long popped up around spooky season, and problematic costumes such as the “sexy geisha,” the “sombrero-wearing Mexican,” and, yes, the “Native American princess,” routinely make their way to the shelves too. In fact, until recently, it would not be surprising to see celebrities photographed by paparazzi in these kinds of costumes. Without naming names, a quick Google search of “racist celebrity Halloween costumes” populates far too many results.
One of the biggest names in Halloween costumes, and a big maker of culturally appropriative costumes in the past, is Yandy. Founded in 2007, the provocative American retailer has become one of the most popular online destinations for Halloween costumes. It sells thousands of styles, which are made both in-house and from external sources. (It also sells lingerie and other costumes year-round.) Over the years, it has become known for its “sexy” costumes in particular, something it has faced criticism for. In 2018, Yandy pulled a Handmaid’s Tale–inspired costume on its site after much backlash online, as consumers felt the sexy costume made light of the TV series, which deals with women being sexually abused and raped. It has also made a Native American–inspired “Dream Catcher” costume, featuring a fringed dress and even a bow, and a “Dia De Los Beauty” costume inspired by Mexico’s Day of the Dead holiday, which has been long appropriated by non-Mexicans.
This Halloween, however, the company claims to be retiring its culturally appropriative costumes for good, and instead releasing costumes that speak to the current climate.
Yandy began planning this Halloween’s costume assortment in November 2019. As 2020 shaped up, its corporate team says it felt a duty to create costumes that are more politically and socially conscious. “This year, we went through items that we thought could be offensive and removed them, or we didn’t go forward with purchasing them,” says Pilar Quintana-Williams, Yandy’s VP of merchandising. “Some things that could be offensive to one person isn’t to another, but if we even had to have that conversation, it was gone.” This summer’s Black Lives Matter protests played a big role in reshaping the Halloween assortment. “There was this heightened awareness that really raised the stakes,” says Alicia Thompson, Yandy’s director of brand marketing.
Yandy took a critical look at its assortment and dropped anything that could be deemed racist or insensitive; it also reworked the messaging around certain items as well, such as its “Afro wig,” which it rebranded to be just a curly-haired wig. “Ten years ago, nobody would even think twice about it, but we realized this term touches on someone’s race and ethnicity,” says Thompson. “We were like, ‘Do we need this term? No.’” Yandy also focused on offering costumes that speak to the moment. Its mail-in ballot costume has been a top seller this season. “Exercising your right to vote is the most important thing in the world,” says Quintana-Williams. “We just happened to Yandy-fy it with some [nipple] pasties.” The brand also released topical Halloween costumes this year such as a hand sanitizer, a murder hornet, and even a postal babe. Don’t worry—they’re still sexy, as is Yandy’s modus operandi. The hand sanitizer costume, for instance, consists of a mint-color, backless leotard and a clear skirt. Yandy also offers a pair of “I Voted” nipple pasties. “A lot of people think that we’re objectifying, but girls want to be sexy and guys want to be sexy,” says Quintana-Williams.
Provocative or not, Yandy is not alone in correcting its approach to Halloween. Take Pinterest, the online platform where people can pin inspiration photos to virtual mood boards. Pinterest continues to be a major destination for Halloween costume ideas. This year alone, the company has seen a 64% increase in searches for terms such as “Halloween night,” suggesting that many are still looking to dress up, even just at home.
Pinterest says it has actually banned advertisements of culturally insensitive Halloween costumes on its platform since 2016. This year, it also made it easier for pinners to report pins of costumes that may be racist or insensitive, something it always reviews seriously. “People can report organic content—just regular pins on Pinterest—as well as advertisements,” says Annie Ta, head of inclusive product at Pinterest. “And then we come across things that may violate our policies as well, and we will take those down.”
This season, Pinterest also worked with Adrienne Keene, PhD, an Indigenous scholar, and its own internal resource groups, such as PIndigenous and Blackboard, to develop a set of terms that may lead to culturally appropriative costumes. Pinterest then worked to prevent these types of costumes from being recommended to Pinners. (On the site’s Today page, Pinterest also offers tips on how to be more culturally sensitive this Halloween.)
With these changes in effect, it seems 2020 may be the year that Halloween smartens up at a mass level. Looking back, the Yandy team recognizes its own errors, and vows to be better going forward. “Sometimes, you have to experience something negatively to be able to go, ‘Okay, wake up moment—let’s do the research and figure this out,’” says Thompson. Quintana-Williams adds, “Some of the costumes that would come out 13 years ago, I can’t even believe we carried that on our shelves.” Much like Yandy’s approach this season, Pinterest’s aim is also to rewrite Halloween’s dark history. Ta says, “We firmly believe that cultures aren’t costumes, and that Halloween should be a time for inspiration—not a time for insensitivity.”