Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Thursday, October 12, 2017


Me, my birding friend Delia Unson, and our dogs, Pip and Spree
When I go birding, I invariably wear khaki cargo pants—a cotton blend most of the time, but in the tropics I wear extremely lightweight pants embedded with a strong insect repellant. In winter, I add a pair of snow pants. I always wear long-sleeves—usually a long-sleeved shirt with pockets but sometimes a long-sleeved t-shirt or a jacket over something short-sleeved. I always wear some kind of hiking shoes. If it’s sunny or rainy, I usually wear my trusty Tilley hat, but if the clouds are thick but rain isn’t likely, I may wear either my Chicago Cubs baseball cap or one that says: "Life is simple. Eat, Sleep, Bird." The moment I put on the final touch, my binoculars, I am as clearly labeled a birder as I’d be with a neon sign over my head.

I’ve heard people refer to this kind of field clothing as a “uniform,” usually to ridicule it. Even some birders make fun of those of us wearing such traditional garb, which is even associated with ridiculous birding stereotypes like Miss Jane Hathaway. But the truth is, my birding clothes are practical. My cargo pockets hold an extra camera and hearing aid batteries, a backup memory card, a lens cleaning cloth, sunglasses, and tissues in case something triggers my allergies. I’ve always worn hats and used a lot of sunscreen, but nevertheless have had some basal cell carcinomas. Most people stop laughing at Tilley hats after their own doctors start mentioning skin cancer.

I may feel prickly when people ridicule my birding clothes, but no one has ever called my birding attire a “costume.” In normal usage in modern America, we don’t refer to anyone’s day-to-day attire or their professional garb as a costume. The only people who wear to work what would be called costumes are actors, people wearing period attire in historical reenactments, and clowns. Generations of children dressing up in Halloween costumes have given the word a strong connotation such that its use both trivializes the clothing and implies that the wearer is play acting—pretending to be something he or she is not. No one with command of English would ever say that a doctor wearing a white coat and stethoscope, a nurse in scrubs, an astronaut in a space suit, a uniformed police or military officer was wearing a costume.

So I was very distressed to receive this thoughtful email from Justin Helmer, who DJs at KVSC in St. Cloud, Minnesota. He writes:
I thought you would want to know, that your use of the word 'costumes' when referring to First Nations' clothing is a bit disrespectful. The word regalia or garb would really be more appropriate especially as we head into Halloween season & the word 'costume' can tend to normalize the wearing of traditional dress in culturally insensitive ways.
I'm not sharing this with you to shame you, but because you seem to be the kind of person who would want to know.  Thanks so much for the show!  
As a professional writer, I’m mortified that I could be so thoughtless. As I said, I’d be irritated, and even offended, if someone referred to my birding clothes as a costume, and they’re a lot more trivial than the regalia central to traditional ceremonies. Many people are dismissive of birders or don’t take us very seriously, but it’s not as if we’ve ever been persecuted, or any of our parents or grandparents shunted off to special schools to obliterate our language and cultural inheritance, or our ancestors massacred or rounded into reservations. I grew up a Roman Catholic, and would never ever have referred to the sacred vestments priests wear to say Mass, or the habits worn by nuns, as costumes. I’m glad someone called out my egregiously disrespectful word for important ceremonial and traditional garb.

I learned long ago in an ecology class that diversity equals stability. That simple principle holds for human communities as well. Respect is the glue essential for holding our American community together. I apologize from the bottom of my heart for my disrespectful carelessness.