My Culture is Not a Costume

I really Love these posters that speak out against cultural appropriation, stereotyping, and racism during Halloween. The campaign was launched this year by Ohio University’s Students Teaching Against Racism in Society (STARS) and has been circulating throughout the blogosphere and social media networks.  I’m glad this campaign exists because every Halloween I’m disgusted by the (mostly white) people who choose to dress up as horribly offensive racial stereotypes.  “It’s no big deal,” they say, “it’s just for fun, stop being so sensitive!”

As the picture above depicts, racism isn’t hard to find during Halloween.  You’ll be walking through your local Halloween store and see costume packages depicting mostly white men and women dressed up in pathetic, westernized perversions of non-white cultures.  At Halloween parties, you might be having a good time with your friends when, suddenly, a group of white people wearing shoe polish on their faces burst into the room and, yeah, *record scratch.*

Even though I know racism is alive and well in society, I was a little surprised by the conversations surrounding this campaign.  Instead of listening to the people who are hurt by the way their ethnic and/or religious backgrounds are appropriated, mocked, and stereotyped, critics of this campaign have called anti-racist efforts “censorship,” “oversensitive,” and “overreacting.”  Several times, a friend and I were called “racist” or “anti-white” by white people who wanted to derail the conversation about racism by focusing on problematic “reverse racist” arguments.  Before we knew it, we were being accused of “denying” white people the “right” to perpetuate racist stereotypes about non-white cultures. Seriously?  You feel so “oppressed” because you’re being asked to not be racist and make a mockery of another culture?  Wow, that must be painful.

Perhaps what is most offensive to me is how concerns about people using other cultures as “costumes” is written off as “oversensitive” and accused of “dividing” people. There’s a “blaming-the-victim” tone in that argument, as if people of color offended by others using their cultures as “costumes” should “toughen up” and “stop being so darn sensitive!” Speaking out against racist stereotypes is about understanding people’s experiences, which includes making the effort to see realities from their perspective. That brings people together, generates dialogue, and works to establish understanding and respect. Arrogantly judging people’s feelings and experiences does not.

Imagine how damaging and injurious the experience would be for a Mexican student to see his/her white peers dressing up as Mexicans on Halloween, imitating Mexican “accents,” and acting in ways that mimic media stereotypes about Mexicans. Imagine how offensive and harmful it would be for a Muslim student to see his/her white peers dress up as “Muslim terrorists” and act accordingly to media stereotypes. Imagine how hurtful and terrible it would be for a black student to see his/her white peers shoe polishing their faces to look black, especially considering the loaded racist history blackface has in the US.  Think about how traumatizing all of these experiences can be.  Furthermore, the white people dressing up as Mexicans, Africans, Arabs, South Asians, East Asians, Native peoples, and so on, don’t have to deal with the marginalization, discrimination, stereotyping, demonization and other forms of oppression that those groups face on a daily basis.  When white people say people of color are “overreacting” or being “hypersensitive,” they are not only asserting their “authority” and “credibility” on what is to be deemed appropriate or offensive, but also defining the realities of people of color.  The dismissal of anti-racist concerns is an insult to their intelligence, which also reinforces the racist logic that the dominant group must speak for and define minority groups.

And when people say they’re “not racist” and actually “care” for the people they’re using as “costumes,” they should be informed about the struggles communities of color face.  If you say you care about people of color, then fight racism in education, law enforcement, politics, media, and so on.  Show solidarity with these communities and speak out against the stereotypes that have been normalized about them.  Solidarity in social justice struggles expresses more care for the community than using their culture(s) as “costumes.”  You say you care about Muslims?  Then when Muslims tell you that your “suicide bomber costume” is offensive, you should put your “costume” aside, along with your ego.

There are a lot of amazing posts on this subject and instead quoting from all of them, I will share a few links below.  Please take the time to read the posts, especially if, for whatever reason, you still don’t understand why cultural appropriation and using race and culture as “costumes” is offensive.

I hope everyone has a safe, anti-racist, anti-sexist, and bigotry-free Halloween!

Further reading:

1. Don’t Mess Up When You Dress Up: Cultural Appropriation and Costumes

2. Native Appropriations: Open Letter to the PocaHotties and Indian Warriors this Halloween

3. Cultural Appreciation or Cultural Appropriation?

15 thoughts on “My Culture is Not a Costume

  1. This is what you get when you live in a self-obsessed country like the U.S. When your co-nationals are so uninterested in other cultures, they pick up a blurred vision of what other cultures are like, in which the sharpest details are the stereotypes, and century old depictions. Most of these depictions have only one or two facets to them, being only shallow representations; Japanese people wearing kimonos and sporting katanas, Arabs donning “towels” and hawking oil, Mexicans in sombreros, etc. It’s quite sad, really, to see people limiting their experience to nothing but their mundane All-American lifestyles. They miss out on quite a lot.

    Specifically about the Halloween thing, I think it’s perfectly alright to dress outside of your own culture, but don’t dress as a stereotype. And no accents. If you want to dress up as a Mexican caballero, speak Spanish, or speak your normal English. Don’t appropriate a stereotyped accent that furthers the view of Mexicans as dimwitted drunkards with the emotional subtlety of an anvil to the head. And no makeup. Don the dress of a samurai if you want to, but painting your face yellow (besides being inaccurate) shows that you reduce an entire culture to skin color.

    1. Hi Quix,

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts! You’re right, these representations of non-white cultures are very narrow, making it all the more problematic. I still think it’s offensive to dress as another culture or race. I don’t like it when I see white people appropriating South Asian dress, even if they have good intentions. The point is that they have the “privilege” to dress up as a culture without having to deal with the real stigma that people of color have to deal with. Yes, it might be all fun and games if a white man wants to dress up as a Sikh, but does he know how Sikhs have been stereotyped, discriminated against, and/or victimized by hate crimes because of the way racists have mistook them for Muslims or Arabs? That is a reality white people don’t have to live with. Instead, they can wear a turban for one day, have people compliment them on their “costume,” and then take it off and go back to living life being white. There are so many other things people can dress up as. When people of color tell others to stop appropriating their culture(s), people shouldn’t do it.

      1. Thanks for responding,

        Interesting point about the unshared stigma. I agree it’s problematic. Even appropriating fictional characters can be tricky. I saw a barista dressed as the Disney Pocahontas. Aside from the fact Walt Disney was a Hitlerian racist himself, I wonder if she’s aware of the negative portrayal Native Americans were given in the Disney movie. The same sorts of problems arise in the numerous legendary figures Disney and other white-centric studios have decided to exploit. It’s unfortunate. I’d love to live in a world where Halloween can be seen as an opportunity to celebrate each other’s cultures, but I suppose there’s still too much political inequality between “white” culture and other cultures for that to be possible yet.

  2. I really love reading your posts, they’re an education into topics I often would pass over otherwise. I truly love your writing & I think they speak profoundly of how issues affect both people of colour & Muslims across the world.
    I’ve seen the posters you posted floating around tumblr with inappropriate hashtags of how this is the PoC community being hyper-senstitive & a little ‘too’ PC [whatever that means]. I’ve also seen a poster where a man has made a parody of the typical ‘white US southerner’ & written the same thing as the posters above. White privilege is once again rearing its’ unwanted head in this discussion of a culture being abused for a ridiculous holiday.

    1. hfm,

      Thank you so much for your kind words! It means a lot to receive feedback like yours. 🙂 I saw those parody posters as well. It’s horrible how some people are choosing to make a mockery of the campaign instead of understanding how hurtful cultural appropriation is. I had several conversations with people who argued that this campaign was a “threat” to “freedom of speech.” They spoke as if people of color could exert the same power of dominance that the white mainstream has. It’s sad that asking for respect is way too much for some people.

  3. Hey another fantastic post! 🙂 Glad to see you posting more these days.

    I get sick of being told I’m “too sensitive” whenever someone makes a racist, sexist, etc, joke. I mean, please explain to me why rape jokes are funny? The whole charge of “reverse racism,” “anti-white,” etc. I think it’s just a form of denial. But that’s White privilege for you.

    Also your post reminds of how some white people say “Gosh I wish I had your skin/hair/eyes.” Not realizing how patronizing it is. What many people don’t realize is these costumes may seem like they’re harmless, but they’re not.

    1. I know what you mean! When people don’t look at their privileges and don’t make an effort to unlearn the racism, sexism, classism, etc. that has been engrained in society, they think horrible things like rape jokes are “harmless.” Calling people “too sensitive” is utterly dismissive and dodges an important conversation that needs to be had about these issues.

      I agree with you on the patronizing comments, too. They say they wish they had our skin color, hair, eyes, etc., but they don’t seem to realize they’re overlooking the discrimination, marginalization, and stereotyping that communities of color have been dealing with.

  4. I appreciate the sentiment, but I can’t help thinking that you have made some presumptions yourself about peoples’ behaviour and those it ought to offend. Whilst dressing up as a stereotype of a Mexican person is a dig against a culture in general, dressing up as a Muslim terrorist could be seen as a dig at Muslims, or a dig at Muslims who are terrorists. Despite my being Caucasian, I don’t get offended every time I see someone dressed as Hitler. (Or if I do, I find it offensive because it is making trivial something which is very serious and horrible).
    I must say that I doubt that the majority of people who don these costumes would have the insight to appreciate the subtle difference, however, it’s possible that in some of the situations expecting people to be offended by these things may itself be a form of stereoytping.

    1. Pulling the “reverse racism” card now, are we? Did you not read the comment policy?

      Oh, you don’t get offended when you see someone dressed as Hitler? Why, do white people get stereotyped as being Hitler all the time? Is the mainstream media full of racialized stereotypes that degrade, vilify, and dehumanize white people? Since there have been so many white gunmen shooting and killing people (I assume you’re aware of this), do you feel horribly stigmatized because of being white? Are people coming up to you and asking you to apologize because of what these white men did? Are people profiling you in public places? Do people point fingers at you and laugh, “Haha, you’re white! You’re a terrorist just like James Holmes, Wade Michael Page, Jared Loughner, Timothy McVeigh”? Are people asking you stupid questions like, “Hey, can you explain why white men do this? What is driving them to go on shooting rampages?” Do people ask you, “Why are white people so violent? Why is their culture that way?”

      Yeah, I didn’t think so. That’s called white privilege and your comment reeks of it.

  5. I’ve obviously touched a nerve, which was not my intention. I also hope it has nothing to do with the colour of my skin, although I doubt I would’ve received the same reply had I not identified myself as Caucasian.
    I didn’t see my comment as an accusation of ‘reverse-racism’ at all (to be honest, I am struggling to understand what ‘reverse-racism’ would consist in). I also don’t pretend to understand how it it feels to be anything other than Caucasian (there have also been discussions about whether the majority of Caucasian Westerners actually feel white at all – or whether through some sort of unconscious bigotry they merely presume they are ‘normal’ whilst ‘race’ is reserved for others – I can only hope that I don’t hold this quality).
    I honestly did not intend to trivialise the discussion, and I am disappointed if you have taken it that way. I believe we have similar goals, but I can’t help that thinking that you may have jumped on the defensive a little too hastily.
    I am also interested to understand what you mean by the term ‘white privilege’, does this suggest that every Caucasian person is somehow at an advantage or merely that that is how it is often perceived?

    1. No, you didn’t touch a nerve. It’s just that it’s not my responsibility to explain things like how messed up “reverse racism” is. So many amazing anti-racist feminist women and men have been writing about it for years and years. There are also excellent anti-racist white allies who have done a great job educating fellow white folks about this.

      I don’t have time to give you a 101 on white privilege nor is it the responsibility of people of color to explain that to you. That is work you already need to be doing. Thank God for Google. Peace.

  6. But what about when it is not a stereotype? For example, I am a white girl who took lessons in Kuchipudi (a South Indian classical dance form) when I lived in India for 5 months. Would it be wrong for me to wear the costume and perform for my friends just because I am white? I am not trying to sound whiny, but when I understand the cultural significance of what I am wearing an it is true to the original culture, I still need to worry about offending people by my mere skin tone.

    1. The problem is in your comment, particularly when you call it a “costume.” It’s not a costume. You need to challenge your perception of South Indian dress and the language you are using to describe before even considering on wearing to perform a classical dance. If you use the word “costume” to describe South Indian dress, that’s very offensive. That’s stereotyping right there.

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