Miss(ed) Representations, Part One: ‘I’m a Culture, Not a Costume’ Campaign

By Sexual Correspondent Andrea (AJ) Plaid

Longtime Racialicious readers know this time on the calendar has prompted the R to read someone (or several folks) about their racist costumes or some other Halloween-related foolishness. Well, this year, Ohio University’s Students Teaching about Racism in Society (STARS) put on posters what we’ve been putting into words for quite a while.

I think that, for the most part, the campaign deserves the accolades, coverage, and support it’s been getting around the web, from Angry Asian Man to the 17,575 (and counting!) responses on the STARS president’s Tumblr to The Root to Bitch to the former Racialicious owner Carmen Sognonvi .

Of course, we can argue, among other things, that phenotypes don’t equal culture and cultures aren’t static or even talk about the historical-religious appropriation of Halloween itself.

My only quibble with the campaign is that I may have chosen photos where the models conveyed different body language. Not that the models didn’t pose how they wanted, being a student-driven campaign. What I do think is quite a few photographers rarely get The Shot in one shot; in fact, several photographers submit several photos for clients/collaborative partners to choose from.

I would have chosen, say, the Latino looking down at the photo, the East Asian woman giving the “geisha” picture the side-eye. Or all of the models giving their respective photos the side-eye. Or all of them looking out at the viewer. Or all of them looking down. As is, the photo of the East Asian woman looking down may suggest non-confrontation (“meek Asian girl”)

juxtaposed with the men of color (the photo at the top of the post and this one)

and the Black woman

may  inadvertently suggest stereotypes of anger and aggression (“angry Arab,” “Latino with a temper,” “aggressive Black woman”). Just a thought if and when STARS decides to tweak this incredible campaign.

But, again, that’s my only quibble. STARS did a wild-applause-and-rose-tossing job with this campaign.

Others, however, have taken this serious and timely message and parodied—if not downright attacked–it. (Color me unshocked by this, Racializens.) Now, some of the parodies made me chuckle, like this Avatar-based one

and the zombie one

mostly due to the ideas of the creatures being symbols for people of color.

The ones about white people, especially poor whites, produced mixed results mostly because the parodies don’t quite grasp that, yes, poor white people do have a mitigated privilege via their skin color and that white people of various class standings making fun of poor whites may be viewed as “inside joking,”

but white poverty is also thoroughly ridiculed and dismissed—and, therefore erased–in US society by that very same mitigated privilege.

Oh, and let’s not forget the sexism and the fatphobia in these parodies.

As we’ve witnessed in our posts about racism in costuming, people have rushed to defend their choice to dress up in racially offensive Halloween garb in some of the comment sections about the campaigns, with the usual mixture of the “I got my rights!”, “my best [insert race and/or ethnicity here] friend/partner/co-worker/neighbor didn’t find my costume offensive,” (bonus points if the person saying this is a person of color wears the stereotyping costume of a PoC culture), “y’all are being oversensitive/overemotional/hostile,” “you’re the racist for calling out my racism,” and other derailing techniques.

Some of the Derailing/Apologist/Other-Blaming hits and remixes?

From “Jerry Stein” at Autostraddle

OMG, get a life. This is pathetic. Would an Asian woman be OK to go as a Geisha on Halloween? If not why not? And if so are we now saying that only people of the exact origin or race can have fun dressed as a CHARACTER on Halloween? Stop being so sensitive. If America is to get passed all of this nonsense then it needs to get some perspective and start smiling again.

Watch any movie or TV show and you will see a racial stereotype. Are all stereotypes negative NO! Why is it that this campaign only sees that.

This country is dividing itself. Nobody wants to be American. Everyone is so narcissistic and self important it makes me sick to my stomach. Bring back people with humility and a sense of humor before we all end up selfish deluded idiots thinking the world owes them something.

Based on this all costumes which feature Cowboys, Irish Leprechauns, Michael Jackson, Lady GaGa, Bin Laden, OJ Simpson, Madonna, Jersey Shore cast members will all now be banned because they offend the Irish, African Americans, Italians and Muslims. Thats pretty much Halloween cancelled.

This country is becoming a laughing stock for the wrong reasons.

Mohamhead from GOOD

I am not white myself but I don’t see what’s wrong with people doing that kind on stuff on Halloween. I might even dress up as a white guy. Is that racist too? Or is it only racist if white people do it? Hypocrites.

didimydoe3, also at GOOD

I don’t mind stereotypical costumes of my race because I’m mature enough to know it’s a costume.

Sometimes it is offensive. Mine is. It’s the only reason I’m doing it. I’m going blackface.

Oh, I could go on and on and on with these kinds of comments–because these comments are out there ad nauseum–but you get the jist.

But see, here’s the thing, People Who Defend Racist Costumes: you all are proving STARS’—and Racialicious’—point…and quite well. You’re welcome.

As Bitch’s headline says, don’t mess up as you dress up, and have a Happy Halloween!

Image credits: Uproxx and Hard to Be Humble When You Stuntin on a Jumbotron

  • Rose

    What I’ve never been able to understand is why (white) people who dress up as celebrities / noteworthy figures of color (like President Obama, for example) don’t seem to understand that they can dress up as that person without doing blackface. If you want to be Michael Jordan for Halloween, wear a Jordan jersey– that should be identification enough to let people know that you’re Jordan. For heaven’s sake, why in the world would you add blackface to the mix?! 
    Halloween increasingly seems to be just one big opportunity for people to demonstrate their insensitivity and ignorance to the world.

  • Anonymous

    The problem is, how do you teach them to not dress in blackface or yellowface when you’ve told them that it’s okay b/c they are small? 
    Do we make them stop at puberty?  Or when they start driving?  Or for their 18th birthdays?
    Why not try to teach the next generation of people not to be insensitive racists who think it is okay to stereotype entire races of people for the sake of a holiday.
    This isn’t a school play, it’s not a teachable moment.  It’s a stupid effing holiday.  What is so hard about anyone of any age not dressing like a racist?  As a black person, I don’t find racism cute in children either.  
    I can’t speak for everyone, but I don’t have a problem with people dressing as cartoon characters b/c the character’s costume is pretty obvious.  You can be a boy or a black person, but if you wear a Dorothy (from the Wizard of Oz) costume we know who it is.  We’ll recognize the Little Mermaid.  And I personally don’t have a problem with a kid dressing head to toe in Michael Jordan gear as long as doesn’t do blackface or wear an afro wig.  It just seems as if too many white people LOVE to wear fake “black” hair for Halloween, even when the person in question doesn’t have a giant afro, which is usually the fall back for dressing up like a black person.

  • http://www.facebook.com/fragglera Rachel Kantstopdaphunk

    actually, thats a really good point. part of the problem is the lack of knowledge about roma folks here in the states, my bff is a Spanish Gypsy, and spends most halloweens doing a head desk.  i actually forwarded the pics to her and suggested she do her own. we got into a big thing last year w a mutual friend who attended a ‘gypsy party’.  its kind of absurd really, the whole time she kept saying, ‘would you go to a jew party? a black party? a chicano party?’ and they just didnt get it…

  • http://www.facebook.com/fragglera Rachel Kantstopdaphunk

    actually, thats a really good point. part of the problem is the lack of knowledge about roma folks here in the states, my bff is a Spanish Gypsy, and spends most halloweens doing a head desk.  i actually forwarded the pics to her and suggested she do her own. we got into a big thing last year w a mutual friend who attended a ‘gypsy party’.  its kind of absurd really, the whole time she kept saying, ‘would you go to a jew party? a black party? a chicano party?’ and they just didnt get it…

  • Anonymous

    I’ve been reading a fascinating book about the history of how whiteness has been constructed. The book: Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of White People. She discusses how Caucasian came to be equaled to “white.” If you can get the book, please do. It offers something of an answer to your question.  

  • Anonymous

    ..and even at that, I’d take Wonder and Charles off the table because the costumes risk getting into ableism. I can easily see people mocking their mannerisms to “get the point across” that they’re Charles or Wonder. 

    Prince? I do think he’s unique enough to costume up w/out blacking up. I have a pal (Black woman) who dressed her daughter (Black child) up as Prince. A strategic part of the child’s gorgeous ‘fro, (literally) pencil-thin moustache and beard, super-ruffled and purple-curlicued shirt, super-skinny pants, and a white guitar…voila! 

  • Anonymous

    Our pleasure, GS!

  • http://twitter.com/DYomoah Doreen

    I completely disagree. I have a white friend (two, actually) who went as Flavor Flav. I have another white friend who went as Beyonce. They were completely recognizable without wearing wigs or black face.

    I don’t think any of them had ill racial motivation. They weren’t mocking the blackness of these celebrities. The costumes were not racial, although they still went as people who were black.

  • LoriA

    For a long time I thought that a ‘gypsy’ was equivalent to a ‘hippie’– just some wacky lifestyle choice!  I had no idea it was an actual ethnicity until I was, maybe, 16 or 17. I wonder how many people out there have no idea?  Not that it would stop a lot of them if they knew…

  • LoriA

    For a long time I thought that a ‘gypsy’ was equivalent to a ‘hippie’– just some wacky lifestyle choice!  I had no idea it was an actual ethnicity until I was, maybe, 16 or 17. I wonder how many people out there have no idea?  Not that it would stop a lot of them if they knew…

    • Mickey

      Most costume websites refer to the so-called gypsy costume as a fortune teller.  The word gypsy was not used in its description, though other sites use it. And I once ran across a website where a Black woman was criticized by some Roma people for using the word gypsy in her article because they found the word offensive and stated that as a Black woman she should have known better.

      • http://www.facebook.com/galiotica Nejasna ちゃん

        On the other hand, actual Romanians are insulted when people use the name “Roma” for gypsies, because they feel it erases their own identity by reinforcing the misconception that Roma people come from Romania instead of India.  (like French newspapers)
        Some Roma from Balkans find the name Roma to be insulting because they consider themselves Egyptian, and and different from Roma.  They write themselves as Egyptian too. This year’s census in Montenegro has had separate categories for Roma and Egyptian Roma.

      • http://www.facebook.com/galiotica Nejasna ちゃん

        On the other hand, actual Romanians are insulted when people use the name “Roma” for gypsies, because they feel it erases their own identity by reinforcing the misconception that Roma people come from Romania instead of India.  (like French newspapers)
        Some Roma from Balkans find the name Roma to be insulting because they consider themselves Egyptian, and and different from Roma.  They write themselves as Egyptian too. This year’s census in Montenegro has had separate categories for Roma and Egyptian Roma.

  • LoriA

    I’m white, and I dressed up as Jasmine when I was four, because I thought she was funny and pretty. I now wonder if my parents should have stopped me.  How would they have explained it? Could they have done it without discouraging me from identifying with characters of color? I mean, maybe the fact that her costume is pretty inappropriate for a little kid should be enough…

  • LoriA

    I’m white, and I dressed up as Jasmine when I was four, because I thought she was funny and pretty. I now wonder if my parents should have stopped me.  How would they have explained it? Could they have done it without discouraging me from identifying with characters of color? I mean, maybe the fact that her costume is pretty inappropriate for a little kid should be enough…

  • Mickey

    I wonder if those same people defending Al Jolson and others in blackface would defend the Wayans Bros. for their whiteface in the movie “White Chicks”.

    • http://www.facebook.com/galiotica Nejasna ちゃん

      That movie was So awesome.  :D

  • dersk

    Geisha is a job, not a race, although I suppose most folks dressing up like that don’t get the distinction. In fact, I was in Kyoto a few weeks ago and apparently several of the geisha houses themselves will do the makeup and rent the costume to toursits (foreign and domestic) – where does that fall on the offensiveness meter?

    • Anonymous

      For me, sometimes it’s not about the offer, but the taking and doing it is were I think it rest. Though the geisha houses may be offering to dress people up, I don’t have to accept doing it just out of respect of how the profession, race, and gender have melded so deep in pop imagination–namely the stereotype of the “meek, sexy Asian girl.” Or it just seem like I was mocking the culture-specific profession.

      I could imagine my rolling in into such a place, dressing up, and taking a photo (I want to record the moment, right?) Now, let me show that to the R crew and see how that works out for me, talmbout “b-b-but the geisha houses offered this, see?” See…no. Racialicious Crew Direct Laser Side-Eye is real, y’all. Just saying.

      • http://www.facebook.com/fragglera Rachel Kantstopdaphunk

        hahahahah, “Racialicious crew direct laser side-eye is real” hahaha, nice. hope i never have ocassion to experience that, it sounds painful.

      • http://www.facebook.com/fragglera Rachel Kantstopdaphunk

        hahahahah, “Racialicious crew direct laser side-eye is real” hahaha, nice. hope i never have ocassion to experience that, it sounds painful.

  • Anonymous

    Right, and something tells me the “white trash” parody above didn’t come from a poor or working class white person.

  • Anonymous

    I did that on another website. The commenters carried on and on in such a way–think the derailing/apologist/other-blaming remix mentioned in this OP–that proved the point I stated in my OP. And I stated that they all proved my point. Suffice to say, the commenters stopped.

  • Anonymous

    Exactly…we know exactly what a person, even without a wig or skin color, is going to default to to show us that they are OJ Simpson or Osama Bin Laden.  Just.Say.No. 

  • Anonymous

    Exactly…we know exactly what a person, even without a wig or skin color, is going to default to to show us that they are OJ Simpson or Osama Bin Laden.  Just.Say.No. 

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_DJQMGJU7MZMBVLSD4GUTPJEPD4 murt

      Andre Agassi dressed up as Mr. T – complete with blackface - http://deadspin.com/5855305/andre-agassi-is-mr-t

      Have to admit I was very disappointed, but the kinds of questions discussed in this thread were going through my mind. 

      Thanks for the discussion!

  • Anonymous

    I don’t think you have to dress up like Al Jolson and sing “Mammy” for it to be offensive.  I saw his picture, and also saw the offensive “whitesplaining” article defending it.  The writer was to me racist and dismissive in his explanation, and definitely promoted the idea that it wasn’t offensive since the player was also South American (not that it doesn’t mean that he isn’t white though).  Even without the awful article, this picture is just as sick as the one in the ad campaign.  And unnecessary. Why not go as Marshall and Kim Mathers?  Or maybe as Pitbull or Daddy Yankee?

    But in my opinion, his costume was offensive, and it was hilarious to me that his girlfriend who was supposedly Beyonce did a piss-poor job of it.  So yeah, Beyonce wears giant honey-blond/brown wigs, but the girl wore something that looked like Snooki hair and was pitch black.  It’s hard to articulate, but the fact that she felt the need to darken her skin but not use the proper color wig just seemed off to me. Why argue about the need for authenticity if you don’t seek to accurately emulate other things?  I see your Manny Ramirez suggestion as being problematic for the same reasons as this Jay-Z/Beyonce couple.  People are just looking for ways around taking responsibility for the inherently racist act of going about in blackface.  Using his hair as part of your costume is just another attempt to circumvent things.

    Cartoon or movie characters who have distinctive costumes when worn by a child wouldn’t bother me…but leave the stereotypical interpretations of our skin, hair, and other physical features out of it. It always, always, always reverts to this idea that everyone except white people has the same features and oh, aren’t they just so funny, cute, hahahaha.  You know, there are black people with “white” skin.  So you can use our own skin and pull off your costume.  Ditto for hair.  

    There are just so many things that you can be for Halloween.  Why are so many people determined to dress up like racist a$$holes as if their lives depended on it?

    • Anonymous

      Why are so many people determined to dress up like racist a$$holes as if their lives depended on it?

      I don’t have a pen big enough to co-sign with this question, nicthommi! 

  • Anonymous

    I don’t think it’s any different when a POC dresses up a another minority. At the party of one of my Native American friends one Native American person dressed up as a Mexican stereotype. I have seen Black friends dress up as “geishas” complete with chopsticks in their hair. It’s not cool to me when they do it either.

  • Anonymous

    the parodies were all over my tumblr pissing me off . There was one of a dog, yeah a dog and a cat and a ape. I mean it’s a joke right, it’s not like people of colour have never been compared to animals. Especially Black people with apes.

    • Anonymous

      While a few of them I did have chuckle at, in general they made me think “So, you equate vampires, zombies, and other mythical creatures and characters with Native people and Muslims? Really????”

  • Anonymous

    @facebook-1346063469:disqus –I get what you’re saying, which is why I framed my statement like this:

    “the parodies don’t quite grasp that, yes, poor white people do have a mitigated privilege via their skin color and that white people of various class standings making fun of poor whites may be viewed as “inside joking,” but white poverty is also thoroughly ridiculed and dismissed—and, therefore erased–in US society by that very same mitigated privilege.”

    • http://www.facebook.com/fragglera Rachel Kantstopdaphunk

      it was obvious to me that you absolutely got the class erasure, and that ‘seeming’ like an inside joke doesn’t make it one.  you actually framed that very very well, thank you.

  • Rae

    I agree that dressing up as (an inevitably stereotypical) version of someone else’s culture is racist. I am curious, however, how people feel about people dressing up as specific historical or contemporary individuals who are of a different race than the person dressing up. For instance, if a white woman dresses up as Freida Kahlo, or a black woman as Queen Elizabeth, or a Latina  woman as Cleopatra? Does it make a difference if the figure people are dressing up as is fictional?

    • http://chainreading.com/profile/baiskeli Baiskeli

      We had a Halloween costume at work yesterday. Someone white dressed up as one of the members or Run DMC. No blackface, no afro, just a throwback jersey with slightly baggy jeans, sneakers and a chain. I think it worked because

      a. The person seems to be a fan of Run DMC
      b. It was a very specific costume 
      c. It didn’t play on stereotypes.

      While it can sometimes cross the line, if your intent is specificity and not mocking, I don’t see much of a problem.

      • Anonymous

        Hmmmm…I tend to be leery of even specificity. One recent example of this is the Antoine Dodson costume that was so hot last year or Heidi Klum’s Kali costume. Both were specific–and the wearers thought they were expressing their “fandom”/respect about the entities behind the costumes, which expresses their “intentions”–but the costumes still offended. (I do have to respect Dodson’s “fuck you pay me” cashing in on his costume.) That why intent doesn’t carry a costume for me.

      • Jay

        As a white person, I would feel weird dressing up as a person of another race, even if I had no ill intentions. The history of white people wearing other races and cultures as a “costume” is so repugnant that it makes me uncomfortable to even go there, and clearly many people are wearing costumes that overtly use stereotypes even today. Maybe the Run DMC fan successfully pulled it off and everyone took the costume as a respectful homage — or maybe someone was upset by it, whether they said anything or not. If it were me, I wouldn’t want to take the chance. It’s not worth it to me.

  • Anonymous

    Well, I’m glad to see this discussion in a place that isn’t going to be chock full of people who heartily defend their right to be racist, or who do nothing but make excuses about why their right to be insensitive racists outweighs my right to be offended by said racism. You know, the whole, “why are minorities so sensitive, it’s just a costume, why can’t I be whatever I want to be for Halloween, it isn’t fair, white people don’t have any rights anymore.”  It is as if I’m in a forum of people preparing to write dissertations on how to effectively derail discussions about racism.
    It kills me how so many non-minorities think that their right to be offensive is more important than anything at all.  Supposed progressives will argue that it’s just a costume, or it’s not offensive b/c they really ADMIRE the culture that they are emulating/mocking with their ethnic Halloween costume.  B/c nothing says “I respect your culture” more than reducing it to a bunch of played out stereotypes in a room full of drunken idiots.  There are about eleventy hundred things that you can dress up as for Halloween.  And honestly, it stops being a costume when you are in fact showing the world that you are just a racist jerk, which you in fact are, 365 days of the year.  The only difference is that instead of being a racist jerk in your own clothes, you are a racist jerk wearing a leather vest or a cheap kimono.

  • Jay

    I love the people whose argument is that they “have a right to do it”. Sure. You have a right to do lots of quite awful nasty foolish cruel things, if we’re talking about legal rights. That’s not in question. The question is, why would you want to?

    • Anonymous

      I’m in a convo on an FB page where someone decided to show up to a burlesque Halloween event as a–wait for it–a “sexy” Klanswoman. (You read that right. One of the leaders of the group said he saw the costume, “was offendeed by it,” but said nothing.)) Of course, the First Amendment Defense (specifically, that I’ll defend your right to be offensive) came up with the rejoinder of saying that “yes, I’ll defend it but that doesn’t mean you can sit next to me at a party and eat cake.” (The commenter’s words, not mine.)  To that I said that I wasn’t stopping stopping the woman from wearing the costume in her home.:-D But the downside of the First Amendment Defense for the particular situation, I added, is that it does allow the person wearing the offensive costume to sit and eat cake with the event organizers’ silent complicity.

      • http://chainreading.com/profile/baiskeli Baiskeli

        Ah, the free speech/censorship argument (I’ve heard it lots of times and my response is always)

        Free speech means that you have the right to be an ass. It also means that others have the right to tell you you’re being an ass!

  • Morenaclara

    I loved STARS for doing this and I so glad that this blog mentioned the campaign. Wearing an “ethnic” costume is just an excuse to be a jackass and it shows your lack of creativity. 

  • Rob

    I wonder what would happen if we simply answered the Internet trolls with:  “Thanks for proving the point of those who are calling out people on their racism. ”  Just keep repeating that over and over.  It’s not the approach I’d take, but I’m curious how the trolls would handle it.

  • Eva

    I think the phrase, “I’m a culture, not a costume” says it all and it should shut people up who ask, “Why can’t I dress up as a….?”

  • Ike

    The meme reeks of “I can’t believe you’re trying deprive me of my right to be racist against you” and also “non-white people are on par with animals and fictional characters”. The whole thing is an attempt to “punish” people of color for daring to assert our humanity. Ugh.

    At the Halloween party I attended, I counted: 1 geisha, 1 samurai, 2 “Indians”, 1 harem girl, and 1 “African muslim”. One of my relatives posted Facebook pictures where she was dressed as an “Indian” and her friend was a “chola”. I’m not going to lecture strangers about their offensive costuming choices or feed the internet trolls, but I would like to start a conversation with my relative. I just have no idea how.

  • http://alagarconniere.wordpress.com julia

    i’m really glad you posted this. i’ve been writing about this issue for as long as i can remember (well, i think the first time i published a rant about it was 2004, and nearly every year since then) and every single year, there are people who accuse me of being “too sensitive.” i suppose i was a bit naive to think that the message of the “we’re a culture, not a costume” was so simple and to the point that people couldn’t possible dismiss or mock it, but i was a bit too hopeful.

    however, i really love the way you put it: the naysayers and those who are whitesplaining that they should be able to wear whatever costume they want are simply proving the point of those who are calling them out on their racism. maybe they won’t realize that today, or tomorrow, but hopefully someday.