The Controversional Halloween Costume Checklist

Halloween Costume Checklist

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

  1. 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?
  2. 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
  3. 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.
  4. 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 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!

Disney’s 1st Latina Princess – Sofia

Disney‘s first Latina heroine, little Princess Sofia, will debut in a TV movie (“Sofia the First: Once Upon a Princess”) on the Disney Channel on 18 November 2012, and will star in a TV series in 2013.

Disney’s Princess Sofia (Source: Buzzfeed)

Princess Sofia comes from a fictitious kingdom and is a biracial child (though she’s been referred to – incorrectly, according to Disney – as a Latina or Hispanic princess): she’s half-Enchanchian and half-Galdazian. According to one article, Disney stressed that they didn’t mean for her to be Latina but it just so happens that her mother has darker skin and comes from a fictitious place with Latin influences… Ok, so that makes her queen mother Disney’s 1st Hispanic royal and by default, she (Princess Sofia) is a Latina princess.

Princess Sofia with her queen mother (Source: Buzzfeed)

‘Where are you from?’ – The Dreaded Question for TCKs

Where do you come from?

How often I have been asked that since childhood. As a child (i.e. until I turned 15 and spent more time in my homeland, Canada), it was a question I had NO idea how to answer. And how could I, having been born in one country, then moved to another, and yet another, with plenty of visits home throughout the years?

This is what I mean:


Q: “Where do you come from?”
Mini me: “Umm… I’m from Hong Kong but I was born in Canada.”
Q: “Oh, so your parents are from Hong Kong?”
Mini me: “No, my Dad’s born in Canada and my Mum’s born in Taiwan.”
Q: “Why were you in HK?”
Mini me: ‘Dad’s job? I don’t know!’


Q: “Where do you come from?”
Teen me: “Uhh…I’m from Taiwan.”
Q: “Are you a landed immigrant?”
Teen me: (Thinking: ‘Immigrant – someone who moves to another country. Landed – arrived…’) “What’s that?”
Q: “What passport do you hold?”
Teen me: “Canadian.”
Q: “Where were you born?”
Teen me: “In Vancouver…”
Q: “….Oh.” ‘Why is she so confused herself?’

For many years, probably until I turned 18, I thought I was the only stupid one who couldn’t figure out where she came from / understand the question and answer it simply. I confused so many people because no one could figure out how someone “from Asia” could:

1) speak English fluently
2) attend international/private schools
3) move around so often

It wasn’t until I stumbled upon a forum for third culture kids (internationally-raised/educated kids from foreign countries; expat children, basically) that I realised I was not ALONE in dealing with this STUPID question. You want to know where we’re from? We’ll actually have to tell you a story about our birthplace and all the other places we lived in!

Now (i.e. adult me), it is a question I find both amusing and annoying. Quite often I have found that people did not get the answer they’d expected. There are usually 2 kinds of responses:

1) acceptance of answer followed by other questions of curiosity
2) rejection of answer followed by more questions pertaining to one’s ethnicity (supposedly, one’s “country of origin”)

1a) Someone hears my British/’unique’ accent.

Q: “Where in England are you from?” or “Where are you from?”
Me: “I’m actually from Vancouver / Canada.”
Q: “No! But you sound really British/English!” (Canadians tend to say I sound Australian. I wonder if it’s because it’s far more likely to meet an “Asian” with an accent – who is neither N. American nor Asian.)

This is amusing.

1b) OR sees/meets me for the first time.

Q: “Where are you from?”
Me: “Vancouver / Canada.”
Q: “Oh nice. And what’s your background / ethnicity / heritage (if I may ask)?”
Me: “Chinese (technically Taiwanese too but they’re originally from China) and German.

This is also accepting and polite.

2) Someone sees/meets me for the first time.

Q: “Where are you from?”
Me: “Vancouver / Canada.”
Q: “But you don’t look like you’re from Canada.” *gestures to face*
Me: ‘What’s that supposed to mean? What’s a Canadian supposed to look like? Oh, European. Hmm, I wonder if they include the Natives as Canadians as well.’ *laughs*
Q: “Where are you ORIGINALLY from?”
Me: “I am from Canada. I was born there!”
Q: “… Where are your parents from?” (I’ve had a case where the questioner asked about my father, mother, and grandparents before getting the answer he wanted. What a waste of time!)
Me: “My Dad’s from Canada and my Mum’s from Taiwan.”
Q: “Where are your Dad’s parents from?”
Me: “Chinese father and German mother.” ‘There, clear now?’
Q: “Ohh! Ok, good mix.” *like*
“But you look more Chinese. I thought you were from Japan / Korea / China / etc.” *dislike* Duh! I know what I look more like! And yes, I already KNEW you would think that’s where I’m from. You were just dying for me to say it!

This is just plain rude! 😡 And such a time-waster.

How to ask about one’s country of origin or one’s ethnic background

What to do:

  • Start with a friendly/casual “Where are you from?”
  • If you are curious about one’s ethnical background, ask, “What’s your background/heritage?”
  • Accept the responder’s replies. You should be satisfied. What you thought they were or where you thought they’re from should be kept to yourself, unless you tell them and apologise for your honest mistake.
  • It’s fine to ask about one’s surname – check where it comes from! *BUT please bear in mind that it could still be a one-sided answer. You either determine a part of one’s heritage OR find out the heritage of his/her adoptive parents/grandparents, etc.

What to avoid:

  • Don’t disagree with the responder’s answer(s). You know NOTHING about the person you’re asking.
  • Don’t tell someone that they don’t look like they’re from their country of origin. We live in the 21st Century – people can come from anywhere! Also, the responder is not STUPID – esp. if he/she is aware that his/her country of origin has a majority of people whom he/she does not resemble. In fact, don’t tell them what they look like. They know, they’ve seen their reflections. There are mirrors.
  • So you want to know what one’s ethnic background is. Don’t go asking where each parent or grandparent or great-grandparent and so forth is from. It could go back generations!