A few years ago, while I was still in university, there was an article in our student newspaper on racist costumes. There had been some costumes I’d seen that I would definitely question but others that I felt were fine, though I knew that other people would find it too racist or controversial. The suggestion then was to almost ‘ban’ these ‘national’ costumes for fear of offending those whose cultures were being targeted. I read some more articles and then I became visibly upset. Yes, I agreed that we should respect people’s cultures and consider their feelings but I felt that these suggestions and fears were too general. In fact, it would be unfair to those who would be wrongly punished or targeted.
Fastforward to last year, when I was in Munich in February 2011 for Fasching (carnival). Unlike Halloween, when people dress up as witches and vampires, etc., Fasching is the time to wear costumes and have fun. Well, I can’t tell you the number of people wearing what many of my Canadian peers (even me) would consider as racist! Many dressed up as Bob Marley, with their faces and hands painted brown or black, their heads covered by the Bob Marley wig hat. There were also a number of people whose faces were painted clay-red, decorated with colourful lines, dressed up as Natives. Still some were dressed as if they were from the Middle East.
WOW. Shocking, no? I mean, Germany, how could you? Haven’t you learned your lesson? Don’t you want to be more careful about this? (This is probably what you’re thinking.)
I thought over this, as I was walking around downtown Munich, and realised (more like remembered) a few things:
- Lots of Germans/Europeans/non-Jamaicans are fans of Bob Marley. Maybe some wished they were Jamaican. Or Bob Marley himself.
Reason I thought this way: At one point, someone I know wished he were African-Canadian. Didn’t mean he went out and painted his skin or spoke differently. He simply identified himself as one of them.
- I learned about this while I was on exchange in Heidelberg: a lot of Germans are fascinated by Natives. They love them! I’m beginning to wonder if that’s the reason why many women dye their hair jet black and tan until their skin is the colour of red clay. But maybe it’s something else.
- Whether one is wearing a turban or a head scarf or something similar, unfortunately, the more ignorant inhabitants think that these people are possibly terrorists. Except they joke about it. I remember I knew someone who took photos of Seikhs and joked, “Are they terrorists?!” 😐 ‘Umm nooo!’
Yet who knows, maybe some had a hero or specific character in mind and this was their one chance to be that person.
It’s hard to tell sometimes who’s mocking or being offensive and who’s being respectful. At times, it might be VERY obvious. Other times, it’s safe to just ask. After all, don’t we want people to know who we’re dressed up as or why? Perhaps you’ll learn a thing or two about someone that you wouldn’t have been able to guess just by looking at them. Maybe you’ll learn something new about a culture, too.
The questions from the Hampshire poster are good but I do have a few comments to make about them.
- Does my costume represent a culture that is not my own?
By one’s culture, does that mean one’s background by heritage? What about TCKs (Third Culture Kids) who’ve lived in countries other than their own passport country or parents’ homeland? Or what about people who have always loved a particular culture but are by birth and heritage not of the culture the ‘national costume’ is from?
- Does my costume reduce cultural differences to jokes or stereotypes?
For example? You mean wearing a Pocahontas costume and painting the face with colourful stripes? How about wearing the dirndl or lederhosen when it’s not Oktoberfest and when one is not in Germany or Austria? Aren’t both stereotypical ‘looks’? Oh no! Have we been offending the Germans? Maybe the Bavarians? :O
- Does my costume packaging include the words: traditional, ethnic, colonial, cultural, authentic, tribal?
If you’re buying a costume from a costume store, any costume you’re wearing is going to be pretty general. It just won’t be accurate and, therefore, can be offensive. So maybe you should splurge and by something from an authentic shop that sells real national/regional costumes. Then make sure you have a good no-personal-discrimination reason for the questioner.
- Does my costume perpetuate stereotypes, misinformation, or historical and cultural inaccuracies?
Like I said above, just about all costumes are going to be general/stereotypical. The Native costume at the store is probably something similar to what Pocahontas wore in the cartoon movie. Dressing up as Mulan would mean wearing a Qipao, despite the fact that Mulan was born wayyy before Qipaos were created (she lived during 386-534 AD).
When I was little, I wanted to dress up as the little girl from The Jungle Book. I dotted my forehead with my Mum’s lipstick and wrapped myself in towels. As a kid, you’re excused for the stereotypes or misinformation. As an adult, I’d be in trouble for stereotyping Indians. Oops! 😐
The 2 main things that bothered me most was when it comes to mixed kids and TCKs – in general.
What if a White girl dressed up as a Native*, her skin airbrushed tanned and her hair dyed black? Would you have know that perhaps her mother is Native and that it’s her sister who looks more Native but she looks more like her father?
Or what if a White guy dressed up in traditional African* garb? Would you have known that he was born and raised in Kenya? Or perhaps that he’d fallen in love with the culture that he felt he was one of them?
*Yes, I’m generalising here.
These are just 2 similar examples to at least 2 people I know who fall into each category.
On the other hand, what about the visible minorities?
What if an Asian girl dyed her hair red and wears blue contacts and dresses up as a Dutch milk maid?
Or what if an African dyes his hair blond and wears a cowboy costume?
Are they both being racist? Are they mocking the Europeans and the North Americans? Are they stereotyping any culture?
This is something I don’t understand. But maybe it’s something historical and now those who are or look more White must pay for the long history of racism of their forefathers. Because, you know, all the other cultures and races are not xenophobic or racist. *sarcasm*
At the end of the day, the poster warning comes down to this:
1. The racists will continue to be racists (unless their lives are changed dramatically). They might not dare to wear an offensive costume if they’ll be fined or suspended or sued, but they probably don’t care who they’re offending.
2. Those who want to represent another culture will not be able to represent because they will feel restricted.
So maybe we shouldn’t dress up as people but as mythical creatures and animals. Though who knows if we’ll be offending them too!
- Ohio University Students Warn Against Making A Racist Fool of Yourself This Halloween (colorlines.com)
Ohio U’s posters raise a good point. While we have fun dressing up, pretending to be what we are not (or maybe are but don’t look like), we are stereotyping others – and sadly, for life. Like I said, maybe we just shouldn’t dress up as humans, past, present or future! Let’s just play it safe everyone!