Over the years, more and more people have been realizing that it’s not okay to dress up as a stereotype. But somehow, costume stores still carry racist costumes. It seems that the lines can be a little blurred at times. This is generally a white people thing, but other races aren’t immune to acts of racism.
I feel I should preface this by stating that I am a white woman. I am not the voice for all cultures, but I will use my privilege as a platform to do my best to help. People seem to think that people of other backgrounds are being overly sensitive, without considering why it bothers them so much. Hint: When you deal with microaggressions and dog-whistle racism on a daily basis, you get kind of fed up (not to mention hate crimes).
So, here we go, let’s tackle this thing.
Generally, nowadays most people know that it’s not kosher to dress up in blackface/brownface/yellowface/redface. But I’m still gonna say right now, for those of you who might not know it, don’t dress up as a disgusting generalization of a race. It’s disgusting that there is still an abundance of costumes that you find that are like “Mexican Guy” fully equipped with sombrero, poncho, taco, and moustache. If you don’t know why it’s wrong to dress like that I’m not sure if I can help you. I mean, I’ll try, but, not sure you’ll get it.
Question: Isn’t my costume funny?
Answer: No. It’s wrong. It’s not funny. People and their culture are not a joke. Someone’s heritage is not a joke. Try to imagine that someone took something very important to you, part of your identity, part of your family’s identity, part of your friend’s identity and shat on it. They make fun of it, they laugh at it, they’ve made something integral to your identity a joke. Suddenly it’s not funny anymore. It’s not a joke, it’s an attack.
Question: Isn’t it okay if I’m not actually racist? I love [race/country]!
Answer: You might not think you are racist, but the fact that you think that a costume representing a race is okay shows that you still have a-ways to go. Casual racism often goes unnoticed by ourselves because it is almost innate in our everyday interactions, and what we see in the media. So, though you might not perceive yourself to be bigoted, you undoubtedly have thoughts reinforced by society’s bigotry. (common examples include thinking: Chinese people are bad drivers, black people are thugs, all Indian people smell like curry… saying things like “I’m not racist, but…”)
Question: But what if I’m wearing my costume ironically? My costume is a racist idiot!
Answer: Is it really ironic? You are still buying a costume and giving your money to a company, telling them that it’s okay to keep manufacturing these awful costumes. People are not going to know just by looking at you that you are wearing it ironically. When a racist person sees you wearing a racist costume, it reinforces their opinion that other races are not on the same level as them. It tells them that it’s okay to think of other races as a joke, and it tells them they are not alone in their awful opinions. So even if you’re wearing it ‘ironically’ and you ‘don’t really mean it’, you’re still a part of the problem.
I have to admit that even I partook in this one before I ever knew what cultural appropriation was. I painted my face like a catrina (skull), wore a poncho, and one of those black hats with a ball fringe. It wasn’t to be offensive. I was wearing it because I was genuinely interested in Day of the Dead. Dia de Muertos is a cool thing. But the thing is, it’s not my cool thing to turn into a costume. It’s an important part of Mexican heritage. This article from Bustle lays out some pretty good outlines.
Characters are where the line starts to get a bit fuzzy. Especially when it comes to children in costumes. Dressing up as a character is generally fine, regardless of race, as long as the character isn’t wearing an outfit that crosses over into the other two sections I’ve listed. Like, if your white kid wants to dress up as Mulan, go for it, but don’t dress up as Mulan when she’s visiting the matchmaker/singing Reflection.
I feel conflicted on this sometimes, because I feel that for adults the standard should be a little bit different. It might be a bit more questionable for a white adult to dress as a character of colour. After all, in 2017 there was like, what? Maybe 5 movies with lead characters that were POC? How many movies starred white people? Pretty much all of them. I don’t see anything wrong with people of colour dressing up as white characters. However, I feel like, at some point, white people need to step back and let others have the characters that they relate to.
Do you have any other thoughts on this that I didn’t mention? Are there any stories of a time where you were insulted by a costume? Do you disagree with anything I’ve said? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!