Thursday, 31 October 2013

On the Racism of Certain Hallowe'en Costumes

     I have always enjoyed Hallowe'en. Even before my LARP days, I was very enthusiastic about costuming. Probably the masterpiece of all my costumes was the blood red Fokker triplane, artfully constructed by my extremely handy mother from cardboard under my strict technical supervision. I also did the painting, with careful attention to the insignias and other features. I was going through a WWI fighter aircraft phase in the fourth grade, and I wanted it to look as much like von Richtofen's famous plane as possible. (I chose the triplane over his Albatros D.3 biplane not just because it was more recognizable, but also because the Fokker's stubbier engine cowling was easier to make out of cardboard than the more conical nose of the Albatros. Yes, I was an übergeek.)

     The political implications of Hallowe'en costumes didn't really concern me, but they've become kind of a hot topic lately. There's been a lot of attention paid to the idea that certain costumes are racist or disrespectful, and in particular some celebrity's choice to appear at a party in blackface has drawn considerable ire, with some writers arguing that "Blackface is always racist".

     My natural tendency, upon seeing such a generalization, is to try to think of counterexamples, and of course that's not too terribly difficult to do. It seems obvious that a commando applying black makeup so as to be less visible at night is not necessarily committing an inherently racist act. Nor is someone who alters her appearance in order to more closely resemble someone else necessarily guilty of racism. And indeed, authentic, traditional blackface minstrelsy isn't necessarily an act of genuine racism if one is, say, acting in historical film about the life and influence of Al Jolson.

     I am thus sympathetic to those who do not understand why darkening one's face for a costume is always racist. It isn't always. But at the same time, just because it isn't intended as such doesn't mean it doesn't reveal a racist attitude. You see, wearing a costume is an inherently expressive act; you wear a costume in order to elicit some sort of reaction from your audience. The reaction you're looking for may be quite innocent: "Wow, I never noticed before how much your bone structure resembles Martin Luther King Jr.! And the moustache is perfect!" But expressive acts take place within a shared vocabulary, and for various historical reasons, a white person wearing black makeup has a whole lot of other connotations one should be aware of, connotations that will affect how one's message is received. If you do not know those connotations, then maybe your intention wearing blackface is truly innocent, but you have another problem: you don't know the connotations, which in itself is a sign of privilege, the sort of privilege that helps keep racism going.
     Think of it this way. By itself, a swastika is a elegant and attractive design, independently discovered or invented many times by many cultures. Not knowing its most infamous 20th century association, you could easily imagine someone choosing to wear a swastika T shirt just because it was a nice pattern. But almost everyone knows of that association, and assumes that everyone else knows, so if you wear that T shirt, people will make assumptions about what you mean by it. If they call you on it, you don't say, "But it's not racist! It's just a pretty pattern!" You either say, "Oh my god, it means WHAT? I'm so sorry!" as you cover it up or remove it, or you say "Yes, I'm glad you asked. I deeply resent the Nazi's co-opting this ancient and honourable design for their despicable ideology, and I am trying to reclaim it and divorce it from its political connotations. To me it represents..." blah blah. You might be wrong then, but you can at least discuss it respectfully, acknowledging the meaning you are explicitly disavowing, rather than taking the dead end denial route.

     Okay, so I get that blackface is "always" racist, at least in the sense that it has a subtext that needs to be acknowledged, and the failure to acknowledge it is itself symptomatic of racial privilege. But I'm less convinced by the complaints that other costumes with cultural stereotypes are inherently racist. That is, I think they're insulting, not because they are depictions of stereotypes but because they're bad depictions. Clumsy, ignorant, insultingly stupid depictions.
     A prime example: the "Sexy Chinese Geisha" costume cited as #1 in this Cracked article. Yes, this is insultingly stupid, but mainly because of the name they sell it under. It's not that there's no such thing as a Chinese geisha, because sure, there could be. A Chinese woman could travel to Japan to study and become proper geisha, and maybe even go back to China to set up her own geisha house. I have no problem with that premise, and also no problem with the "sexy" part, because there's nothing inherently racist (sexist, maybe) about taking any old costume idea and making it sexy. Indeed, the costume itself isn't particularly offensive in a racist, taken as a pastiche of loosely interpreted stylistic elements from various cultural sources.
     (Years ago, by the way, I drove past an actual restaurant with a big sign that read: "Haiku Palace Authentic Chinese Cuisine". I didn't have occasion to go inside so I don't know, but supposing the proprietor to have been Chinese, I don't think the sign would have been any less insulting, because it still conveys the presumption that the audience is culturally ignorant, regardless of how well or poorly informed the namer of the restaurant might be.)

     No, my problem is that the person who named this costume almost certainly didn't do any of this thinking. He or she (or maybe it was a committee?) clearly either had no knowledge of the cultures referenced, or worse, didn't care. It makes little sense to be offended by someone else's ignorance, but what's offensive here is that they unironically invite the audience to recognize as cute or clever something which is devoid of wit. (Unless it's actually a very sophisticated musing on what a sexy Chinese geisha would look like as distinct from a traditional Japanese one, in which case I'm afraid it's far too subtle for me. Is that supposed to be a corset?)
     I realize I'm speaking from my privileged position as a white male here, but it seems to me that it shouldn't be the ethnic inspiration of a costume per se that we object to, but the execution. A clumsy, ignorant and lazy stereotype is of course insulting. But on those rare instances when someone takes the time to get it right, to invest time and effort in learning enough about the culture to produce (and correctly wear) an authentic costume, I think it's probably wrong to feel disrespected.


  1. When I was much younger, I once went to work in an office in my costume as a photo negative. I bleached my hair and beard, slathered on a bunch of black makeup, and dressed in white pants and a black shirt in a reversal of my usual attire.

    So I had a chat with a PR manager, which was a two sentence discussion in which she said we had to talk about racism and I told her what my costume was. That was pretty much the end of that.

    One of the problems with racism is that people want black and white answers. It's much easier to address a villain than a complex social issue, so people invent villains to rail against. It accomplishes nothing, and is actually harmful to the cause, but it's a natural and understandable coping mechanism.

  2. Heh. I once went to a costume party dressed as Stevie Wonder. This was back when I had long hair, and I had my sisters braid it into cornrows for me, put on some sunglasses and a sweater, and adopted some mannerisms. I did NOT, however, apply any makeup, hoping that someone might say, "But you're the wrong colour!" so I could say, "What do you mean?"

  3. I always thought your tank costume was the best.