As I stood in line at the fabric store, I saw “Indian headdresses” made of felt in the bargain bin for a dollar. And suddenly, I was back in Mrs. Morris’s first grade class, making the same thing out of paper. “1 little 2 little 3 little Indians,” we sang together. All I knew about Indians was that they lived in America before Christopher Columbus got here and thought he was in India, they shared food with him on Thanksgiving, something something dream catchers, and then… they just kind of died out? Like the dinosaurs, they had just gone extinct. I’d never met one, never seen one or heard of one outside of stories that took place hundreds of years ago.
“Gypsies”, in my young mind, had never been real. With Native Americans, I’d heard about them in the context of history class, but the only time I came across gypsies was the same time I came across mermaids and fairies and unicorns: fairy tales. They wore lots of scarves, lived in pretty wagons, and cursed people with their magic powers. Never main characters, always serving more as plot devices than characters.
Dressing up as an “Indian princess” one year, a “gypsy” another year, was easy when these people were not real to me. Either long gone or imaginary, they could take no more offense than a centaur or dinosaur.
It wasn’t until middle school that I met someone who told me he was Native American. That was the first opportunity I got to realize that they were still around. As time went on, I met more and more (and I’m not talking white girls who are 1/64th Cherokee) and some became good friends. They became real people to me. It wasn’t until much later that I realized “gypsies” (which, by the way, is an ethnic slur and doesn’t just mean “I’m a free spirit who likes to travel and wear lots of flowing scarves”) not only existed in the past, but existed in the present, and were real human beings. People who had struggles that were ignored because their entire existence was ignored.
This is why visibility matters, in our culture and media. All these people were invisible to me, make believe, imaginary, not human. Because I never saw them. I never learned about them beyond superficial and usually inaccurate history from second, third, fourth-hand accounts. They were just concepts for me to play with. Treating them as costumes only further dehumanizes them in our culture, perpetuates the line of thinking that their lives are fantasies and so we don’t have to worry about them or think about them at all.
Like young me, I don’t think most of the people who dress up in these costumes mean any harm or are purposely trying to offend. You don’t have to feel bad, you just have to change. You aren’t responsible for changing the whole culture that made this seem okay, but you’re responsible for your own part of it. I’ve hung up my felt headdress for good.