Don’t Mess Up When You Dress UP: Response to Bitch Magazine

 Below is a conversation Carrie Leilam Love and I had earlier today over G-chat about the recent post by Kjerstin Johnson on the Bitch blog entitled Don’t Mess Up When You Dress Up: Cultural Appropriation and CostumesWe were both struck by the amount of vitriolic comments the post received from readers who seemed to be defending the choice to be inadvertently (or overtly) racist for Halloween.

We decided to post our conversation in solidarity with Bitch and as a way to show that it’s possible for two people to have a complicated conversation about racism and cultural appropriation without descending into defensiveness and reductive thinking. I can’t get the spacing right, and we have a lot to say, so this is a somewhat dense post. Apologies. But it’s an experiment!

As always, we encourage our readers’ comments, but please be respectful and limit comments to constructive, thoughtful conversation.

Carrie: Have you seen the posters going around? the ones that say “This is my culture not a costume?”

Michael: I haven’t seen them in real life, only on the Internet but I like what I’ve seen so far. Especially because the people holding the posters look so sad. Like their feelings are hurt.
Carrie: Yeah, I’ve only seen them on the Internet too. But I didn’t know what to call that — “digital version of a real poster?” Do people even make real posters anymore?

Which comments were you reading on the article? Ones on the FB post or the online one?

Michael: Both man. The FB ones are particularly striking because you can see that everyone defending the right to have possibly racist costumes looks (at least) white. It’s sort of like, um…. do you guys notice a disturbing theme in your profile pictures here?
Carrie: I always wonder that same thing! Someone was telling me the other day about the comments on an article about the N-word sign at slutwalk. All the defenders were white and all the detractors were of color. It’s like — ok, which group is more likely to see this for what it really is? the group who is privileged by it or the group who is opressed by it? COME ON!
Michael: RIGHT? It’s also interesting to think about these things in terms of real life conversations. As in, if someone you knew told you that something you did hurt their feelings or made them feel disrespected, would you stand there and defend your right to make them feel like shit, or would you say “Wow, it was completely unintentional, but I’m sorry.”
Wouldn’t you want to work it out?
I know when I’ve been called on some shit by people, I might get a little defensive, but I always take a hard look at myself and try to figure out why they might be saying what they’re saying.
And I don’t know, I  wouldn’t want to be the person defending my right to be unintentionally racist. I’d rather be the person reconsidering my motivations.
Carrie: RIGHT? (I’m just going to start every comment with RIGHT? because the world is shockingly fucked up and you are always correct)
Michael: HAHAHA
Carrie: …One of the things I seem to always run into is someone saying “But I am Native American/Japanese/Black and you are being racist for assuming that I’m not just because I look like a white person”
Michael: Yeah, that’s super tricky
Carrie: My thing is — WELL — if you LOOK like a white person that means you have white privilege.
Michael: Being white as fuck, I don’t really ever face that in myself. I pretty much know what to steer clear of.
I think that it’s true what you said about privilege and how you look, but then it gets REAL touch and go when people don’t identify emotionally with how they look physically. Because you don’t want to dictate to someone how they feel on the inside.
Carrie: Doesn’t mean that you cannot claim your cultural/ethnic/racial heritage and be proud of it — but seriously — that doesn’t make it ok it just makes it internalized. If my black friend was like, I’m going to be a hoodrat for halloween, I would be like, “That’s fucked up.”
Michael: Yeah, Because then you have class getting tied in!
Carrie: RIGHT?!
Michael: I mean, these are particularly complicated combinations that are difficult to suss out, but I think there can be clear lines. Like if you’re 100% not a Geisha, maybe don’t dress as one. Just to play it safe and also because that’s a really played out costume anyway.
Carrie: Seriously — in this area, why not just err on the side of caution? It’s far from being “uptight” as many commenters accused — it’s called “My first priority is respecting fellow humans”
Michael: I don’t really understand wanting to dress as a cultural stereotype ANYWAY. I wonder what the point of dressing as a “drunken Mexican” or an “Islamic terrorist” is in the first place. Again, you can totally go as a sexy cat, which is also a great standby (not really).

Carrie: There are SO MANY ways to have fun without dressing up as a cultural sterotype — Bloody Unicorn, for example. That is fun and not racist.
Michael: Tell that to the Unicorn I offended that one year
Carrie: Yeah, what’s the appeal? Why would someone fixate on these things in the first place? I mean I know what I think…but how do they explain it to themselves?
Michael: I think on some level people are maybe trying to remove the power from racism itself? Like “oh it’s SO no longer important.”
Carrie: I think you are too kind with that assertion. I mean really? You think Jen Q. Citizen white college student was like, “i’m going to stamp out racism with this shanaenae costume?”
Michael: HAHAHAHA! No, I guess not. Then what is it? Is it just that people cartoon-ize cultures they’re not part of? Like “It’s a Small World” in Frat Guy form?
Carrie: I think it’s largely unconcious. I think that if people were able to understand that this behavior is offensive in a format where they don’t feel accused they might be less defensive.
LOL at “small world frat guy form”
Michael: I think so, too. I think the word “racist” is in and of itself problematic in these situations. Not that it’s completely unfounded, but that it’s like a language bomb. The problem with the word is that at this point ppl only associate it with overt, malicious intent.
Carrie: My idea for stamping out racism is to have a “Lot’s of nice people are racist” campaign. It’s like, yes, what you did is racist, and you have lots of racist ideas, it doesn’t mean i think you are the scum of the earth and deserve to die.
Michael: Right. It means you just need to think outside of yourself and your own experiences for a minute. And it means you need to be able to listen when someone tells you that your Geisha costume is more loaded than maybe you initially thought when you were looking at it in the costume store.   And you need to not say “BUT JAPANESE PEOPLE DRESS UP AS GEISHAS!” Let’s start a campaign called “OOPS! RACIST!”
Actually, can all humans stop dressing up as Geishas?
Carrie: YES! And if you want to find a way to “honor” a culture you admire, why not find out what ways different communities in that culture need support?
Michael: Exactly. But that’s not the point of Halloween. The point of Halloween is to be someone/thing you are not. I bet Thomas McBee would have a lot to say about Jungian shadow theory here.
Carrie: Seriously, how is dressing up as as reductive stereotype and getting drunk “honoring” someone? Hey I’m going to dress up as your mom and get wasted and then send her a picture of it for mother’s day. Really I can’t think of a better way to honor her, how could you be upset by that?
Michael: And THEN what if I was like “hey, my mom’s not really like that and it really makes me upset and like you’re disrespecting my mom.” And then YOU were like “STOP OVERREACTING! I can shit all over your mom’s reputation if I want to. I think what you think is silly.”
 Carrie: Exactly! I think the personalization of it is a good illustration. OOOHHH — dressing up as something you’re not! Well, we all know that the taboo is enticing. I’m always so facinated by people who are consistently obsessed/appropriative of cultures they were not born into.
Michael: Yes. Like how I am obsessed with the Arctic Explorers of the Gilded Age.
Carrie:  Or how I’m obsessed with Edwardian ladies!
Michael: Except not like that, because there are no dominant negative assumptions about Gilded Age Arctic Explorers and so me dressing up as one is of no consequence. No one is harmed by me dressing like a white guy in a balloon. No one’s going to say to Michael Braithwaite “hey! you’re perpetuating the stereotype of Arctic Explorers being adventurous.”
Carrie: Someone might say, Hey! Michael Braithwaite! Arctic explorers were fucked up to Inuit people!
Michael: And they would be right. Because they were fucked up to them.
Carrie: …HA! Totally true. which maybe makes it apropos for halloween since a White dude with a hungerin for land is FUCKING SCARY!
 And that brings me to another common defense of halloween racism — the extremist argument where someone says, “well, if you follow that logic to it’s endpoint, it’s never ok for anyone to dress up as anything ever.”
Michael: I HATE that argument. Because it leaves out the entire logical framework. You can’t remove the framework and follow it to its logical conclusion.

Carrie: YES to: “you can’t remove the framework and follow it to its logical conclusion”

Michael: Right?? Because the whole point is that there are certain groups who are marginalized by stereotypes, denied opportunities because of assumptions and stereotypes, and who have been historically murdered because of assumptions and ignorance and the seeking of power, so even if it’s only a costume, IT’S NOT THAT FUN TO PLAY INTO THAT HISTORY


Michael: The other argument I can’t stand is when people say “Does EVERYTHING have to be so complicated and deep? Do we have to think about EVERY LITTLE THING?” Well, yeah. Sorry to inconvenience you. Unfortunately we inherited a world where it’s actually best to think about most things unless you are completely unconcerned with your fellow humans.
Carrie: I’m so tired of being accused of being “PC” or “Uptight.” Since when is respecting everyone’s humanity “uptight?” Sorry if you don’t know how to have fun without being an asshole.
 Carrie: To me, it’s the people who immediately go on the defensive and can’t understand that I’m talking to them human to human who are uptight!
Yes, kindness is key!
Michael: Have you been told you’re uptight a lot?
Carrie: I have, and it’s a constant argument I see in online forums when it comes to issues like this.
Michael: Yeah. That’s people not wanting things to be complicated. Complication scares people or makes them feel like they’re going to fuck up at every turn.
Carrie: And probably they will! Like we all do! But it’s OK! How else will we learn and grow and build relationships?
Michael: That’s exactly true. We all fuck up. It just happens. Someone informing you that your costume is [accidentally] offensive is not calling into question your existence as a good person. They’re just saying “OOPS! RACISM!”
Carrie: About kindness… what i said before about lots of nice people being racist.. I really, really mean that. It’s funny because it’s true, but I take it seriously also. I think racism comes from ignorance and fear and lots of genuinely good-hearted people are socialized into it.
Michael: Yeah. When it comes down to it, we’re all unintentional racists. Everyone. And there are power structures at play, but all races have stereotypes about other races. We live in a world that values reductive thinking, we’re bound to reduce other humans to things. What’s important is that we remember that that doesn’t make it right and if someone kindly lets you know that you’re hurting an entire culture’s feelings, you might want to try to cultivate a sense of openness and hear them.
Carrie: That is 100% true. And the power structures you mention are what set up the lines of conflict. Because it wouldn’t really matter if people held stereotypes if some of those peole didn’t have power over other people and make legislation and policy decisions that affect people’s lives and well being based on racist ideas.
Michael: EX-ACTLY! And THAT’S why white people get all touchy. They think that everyone’s saying “only white people do this! they’re evil!” When in fact, the problem is that white people have just been the ones to make cultural stereotyping a weapon, rather than an unfortunate aspect of humanity.
Carrie: YES AGAIN!
Michael: PRINT IT!
So being a white dude dressing as Pocahontas for Halloween brings with it an entire painful history even if MAYBE said white dude just really really liked Pocahontas the Disney movie.
And that’s all he was thinking about when he picked out his costume. Which would be weird in a different way, but whatever.
I mean, that was a crappy movie. Anyway.
Carrie: HA HA HA HA
Ok, my brain is starting to hurt a little, because I’m sick and haven’t eaten much and because this conversation on top of everything going on with Occupy Oakland and THE WORLD AT LARGE is swarming in my head and I feel angry and like laughing and a little woozy all at once…
Michael: You need some soup. Maybe you should have angry laughter and then you’ll sound like a super villain, which would be awesome.
Carrie: Maybe I should be a super villain for halloween!
Michael: I’m going as a shark. Or maybe I’ll go as frontal lobes so as to encourage everyone to embrace critical thinking and empathy.
Carrie: I’m sorry Michael. That is so disrespectful. Shark’s are people too, you know. Sharks are a species, not a costume. HA HA HA! See? I have a sense of humor! I’m not just universally uptight! Also the frontal lobes idea is bizarre and hilarious!
Michael: I don’t think they sell giant frontal lobes at the Halloween store. I actually thought for a second “oh shit, what if I run into a shark and its all ‘that’s not cool, humans make soup out of us and have for centuries.'” Then I’d have to say “Oh man. I’m sorry. I’ve never even had that kind of soup, so I totally didn’t even think about it that way, but I can see how this would make you feel weird.”

Ok, gotta run! More of life’s problems solved by CLL and MVB! Hope you feel better, hon.

Carrie: We should have an advice column.
Michael: YES
Carrie: thanks! love you!
Michael: Love you too!

About Michael von Braithwaite

Does it look like I'd wear it on a boat, at an eccentric person's estate or accompanied by a peacock on a chain? Yeah, I'll probably buy that.


  1. blevit

    Thoughtfulness and humor exist in a discussion about race!

  2. blevit

    I love your alternatives too, by the way. Sexy unicorn and lovable muppet aliens.

  3. carrieleilamlove

    Michael, are those famous people in the featured photo? Or did I go to highschool with them? Why do they look so familiar?

  4. RIGHT?!

    Also, I think Halloween is a perfect time to think critically about the dark historical underbellies of racist costumes. Maybe Halloween *should* be less about “harmless fun” (that is actually harmful) and more about getting in touch with our inner demons and exorcising them. Just like talking about race, Halloween is supposed to be a little scary.

    The problem is, I’m not sure what kind of costume would say “I’m aware of our world’s complicated racial issues and of my own, and I want to have a dialogue about said issues that doesn’t shut anyone down.” So maybe I’ll just go as a sexy bloody unicorn cat instead.

    • Michael von Braithwaite

      MAYBE you should go as a sexy bloody unicorn cat with a cardboard thought bubble above your head that says “I’m aware of our world’s complicated racial issues and of my own, and I want to have a dialogue about said issues that doesn’t shut anyone down.”

      Best costume ever? Absolutely.

  5. I’d buy that t-shirt with the quickness.

  6. Hi everyone. Just a reminder that we will not approve comments that are abusive, sarcastic, snide, rude, or obnoxious. We encourage thoughtful debate, and hope to see a dynamic discussion here. That being said, if you wouldn’t say it at a party, don’t say it here. Stay classy! Thanks.

  7. I totally understand what is being stated, but what is considered disrespectful is simply subjective. I could dress up as a banana and someone could take offense based on cultural attributes (It’s actually happened). Also, if it is suggested that one should not wear costumes that are deemed “racist” what about costumes that stab at religious orientation or other serious subjects?

    • Michael von Braithwaite

      Hi Carly,

      A BANANA?? Now my joke about offending a shark this weekend seems more like a possible reality. But in seriousness, I think subjectivity is an interesting thing to consider, especially when it comes to more innocuous seeming costumes like…fruit? It seems like the important thing is to understand that certain things are just always going to be overtly offensive… like the “drunken Mexican” costume, or costumes that are essentially updated black-face… but then there are other costumes that might be more in a grey area.

      Religious costumes are a great example, actually. Because religion is to SOME people (i.e. me) a whole OTHER form of oppression (so my dressing as a “demonic priest” feels like a way to take a stab at an oppressive religious system that’s held an obscene amount of power for centuries). On the other hand, we’re in the middle of a “war on terror” that in many ways has turned into a “war on Islam” (again, only in some people’s minds), so dressing up as a “demonic Imam” would probably be fairly insensitive, since a lot of people already think being Muslim is like the most evil thing ever and there are power structures at play who are or are trying to build legislation around xenophobic, racist assumptions about that religion. Beyond that, if you’re a white person, dressing as a Muslim or Arabic ANYTHING would generally be seen as offensive (see any portrayal of that culture in mainstream Western white media for the last century).

      And then there are bananas, which who would ever guess that THAT could be offensive. Unless I’m missing something. As always, I think what’s MOST important is that we keep being open to the ever-changing cultural landscape that affects how we interact with one another and that we’re willing to have conversations and ask questions. I think a good rule of thumb with Halloween is to consider whether or not you would feel awkward if you went to a party dressed as another culture/race and it was filled with people ACTUALLY from that culture/race.

      Being people around other people is always complicated.


      • I’ve heard the term “banana” used to describe a “white-acting” Asian American, as in “yellow on the outside, white on the inside.” For the same reasons, dressing up as a coconut or an Oreo could be problematic.

        That said, my friend’s baby dressed as a banana for her first Halloween, and her cuteness pretty much trumped all other factors.

  8. FANTASTIC post! I was just having a conversation with a co-worker about Halloweens past and realized that one year I went as a…”gypsy” I think is what I was calling it. I was probably 8 with a pink glittery outfit, complete with what is basically, as I think of it now, a pink glittery Hijab! What the…???? My husband, who is black & Haitian, used to dress up for Carnival in Haiti in the most offensive costumes- “Indian” and “Chinese person” –> no joke. He was, like, 4 and wearing the most racist “I am Chinese” costume you can think of! In all seriousness, it is a very tough subject. What do you tell your daughter who really loves Tiger Lilly from Peter Pan and is therefore wanting to dress as a Native American for Halloween (not to get started on Peter Pan, but wow racism there, too! I’m pretty sure Tiger Lilly says “how”). An argument against “scary witch” could also be made. I think we are left with dressing as gourds. Sexy (bloody?) pattypans?

    • Michael von Braithwaite

      I was totally thinking about little kids with regard to this last night. As a childless person, I’m not really sure HOW to address this subject with a 4-year-old. Maybe other moms who have addressed this could chime in?

    • carrieleilamlove

      Hi Amanda —

      I don’t have kids, but I was a pre-school teacher and a Nanny for many years. My feeling is — what a perfect opportunity to talk to your kids about racism! Obviously in an age appropriate way — we don’t need to talk to 4 year olds about lynchings and genocide — but a four year old knows what it feels like to be made fun of — why not tell her that some parts of Tiger Lilly’s character are making fun of other people? I would stress that of course there is nothing wrong with her for liking Tiger Lilly, and maybe talk about the positive/neutral aspects of her character and how wonderful they are, and then suggest that she choose a costume that reflects those things? Like I said, I’m not a parent, but I have actually had a few great experiences talking to kids about tough issues like this at that age. They have less at stake than we do and usually take these things in stride.

  9. Pingback: Worth Reading…October 18th – October 26th « Joss/Arden

  10. I think you should be mindful of your language. I am a psychology major graduate and in my field, same as in your efforts, words matter. Here’s what I have learned through my studies on race… People can, when necessary and true, be described as being prejudiced, having prejudiced thoughts, feelings, or beliefs. They can even embody racism – the belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race. However, the word racist is not an adjective that should be used to describe individuals. It simply isn’t applicable in majority of contexts to people. Individuals, unless they are very extreme, do not generally think of themselves as totally racially superior. They may act or think in prejudiced ways that encourage racism but I’d recommend withholding the word racist/racism for describing situations of institutional prejudice. For example, a hospital can be racist if they only allow white patients to receive heart transplants or a school can be racist if only white children are allowed to attend. These institutions are practicing racism and therefore, can be described as racist. Referring to a person as racist is simply too extreme, totally perceived as an insult, and very counter-productive for any efforts to change someone’s narrow views of race because it marks someone as having unchangeable characteristics or personality traits. By referring to someone’s behavior, thoughts, or feelings as prejudiced, you can at least allow the person an opportunity to change (maybe…eventually?) without immediately insulting their identity, and you don’t automatically give them the right/need to respond defensively. I hope I have explained this in a way that makes sense and I hope you will join me in refraining from calling people racist (even though I know it can feel so right to say, especially when it seems the best way to sum up someone prejudiced whom you dislike). Please let me know what you think of this. Thank you for all that you do to identify and act against injustice.

    • Michael von Braithwaite

      “Referring to a person as racist is simply too extreme, totally perceived as an insult, and very counter-productive for any efforts to change someone’s narrow views of race because it marks someone as having unchangeable characteristics or personality traits.”<——This is exactly what I was trying to say about the word "racist" except I didn't know how to say it! Thank you!

      And I completely agree that the word itself is what initiates the defensive behavior. I'm curious if you learned tactics for having conversations around these sorts of things in ways that are productive.

      • jen

        I agree that if you are trying to open a dialogue and change hearts and minds, avoiding the word “racist” can be smart tactics. But I feel strongly that it’s not ok to talk about racism as just applying to institutions, as Holly suggests. The sign at slutwalk that Carrie mentions is a case in point. Holding up that sign was a racist act–whether intended to be such or not–because it claimed the specific experience of racial oppression in order to explain the oppression of all women, some of whom *benefit from racial oppression.* It might be uncomfortable for people with privilege to hear that actions we don’t intend to be racist (sexist/ableist/homophobic etc) are those things, but the thing is this: feeling uncomfortable does not in any way compare to suffering oppression. Period. Everyone’s feelings matter, yes, but in a conversation about race my feelings as a white woman don’t matter as much as the feelings of a person of colour, because I have the position of privilege in that conversation. In asking the oppressed person to take responsibility for my feelings when they call me out for something that isn’t right is putting the burden of racism on the very group of people most damaged by it. Part of being held accountable for having privilege is dealing with how shitty it feels when you use that privilege in harmful ways. And yes, it is important to acknowledge that people can change/aren’t inherently evil/sometimes good people do bad things, and it’s important to do that by calling out the behaviour rather than the person. But in the end, holding up that sign at slutwalk, wearing an offensive costume at Halloween–those actions are “too extreme” in far, far more dangerous and marginalising and oppressive ways than is calling them what they are: racist acts–performed by complicated/possibly well-intentioned/simply unthinking/otherwise good, caring people perhaps, but racist acts nonetheless.

      • carrieleilamlove

        Here here Jen! Thanks to you and Holly for sharing your thoughts. Jen pretty much said what I think — racism is not only institutional, it’s also personal. and for that matter, institutions are run by people — “a bank” does not deny someone a loan, a person who works at a bank does. “a bank” does make up policies, people who work at a bank do.

        And while I definitely agree with Holly on the core idea that people having racist ideas or doing racist things does not make them inherently bad, unchangeable people, I think avoiding the word “racist” is a less effective strategy than “reclaiming” or “deescalating” the word racist. It’s my feeling that if we take the word racist off the table it makes it too easy for people to just continue to be passively racist and call their behavior something else. I think if we can get to a place where people understand that racist ≠ lynch-mob-in-sheets, they might be more willing to face their own racism.

        Here, I’ll go first: I am a racist. I often make assumptions about people based on the color of their skin and other identity markers.

        Anyone else?


  11. Jake

    There were two statements in this conversation that really stood out to me. The first:

    “Carrie: My thing is — WELL — if you LOOK like a white person that means you have white privilege.”

    This statement is extremely ignorant. I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be rude or abusive, but saying that a person’s cultural identity is not valid based on the fact that they may come from a mixed race background or may just be light skinned, is INCREDIBLY offensive. That, in and of itself, is extremely racist. You’ve managed to marginalize a vast majority of people’s opinions and ideas simply based on the color of their skin. Period.

    The second statement that leapt out at me was the following:

    “Michael: I mean, these are particularly complicated combinations that are difficult to suss out, but I think there can be clear lines. Like if you’re 100% not a Geisha, maybe don’t dress as one. Just to play it safe and also because that’s a really played out costume anyway.”

    Here, you claim that if a person is not 100% a member of a profession, then perhaps they should not dress in said garb. By that very reasoning, then people cannot dress as police officers, firemen, accountants, etc. unless they are members of said professions. That is an extreme disconnect from the very spirit of the holiday. And what about cowboy costumes, or “redneck” costumes, Victorian era Europeans, or even the Founding Fathers. I’ve not seen anything that addresses these issues. Are they exempt from the same scrutiny because they are from predominately white cultures?

    • Michael von Braithwaite

      Hi Jake,

      Thanks for your comment! I’ll let Carrie respond to what you bring up in her bit, but as for the Geisha thing that I said, I think that dressing as a Geisha is a little more complicated than say, dressing as a police officer, if only because of its complex history that includes a wide variety of Western stereotypes created by white men (just one of which being the mistaken assumption that Geisha were simply there to sexually please them). You might already know the [fascinating] history of the Geisha in Japan, so I’m not going to go into it, but if you don’t you should look it up–it’s a really interesting read!

      And again, it’s like I said to Carly up there, I don’t think there are simple or easy answers to these sorts of things. I mean, each of the costume examples you list bring with them connotations that are completely different. We live in a country founded by wealthy European white men, the culture of this country was built around the power structures associated with that foundation, so dressing as a Victorian era European or one of those Founding Fathers isn’t really the same as dressing as a Geisha. If you’re white, one is dressing as the group–the group of which you’re already part of–who defined the power structures we’re still working with today, and one is dressing as a cultural stereotype defined BY the power structure. Would it feel the same for a person who is poor to dress up like Donald Trump as it would for Donald Trump to dress up like a stereotype of a really poor person?

      Now, that doesn’t mean that if you’re (talking universal “you,” here, not YOU “Jake”) dressing as a Geisha you’re trying to be a dick who’s really into putting Japanese culture down, it just means that you might inadvertently be walking around in a costume that’s loaded with associations that could easily offend someone from that culture because they’re going to be more aware of how those associations have affected their experience in the world than “you” as a white person who has never been affected by them would. It’s not really about being white, per se, it’s about unfortunately being part of the group who defined the way that other groups have been treated historically. The group that created the definitions in this country happens to be white and unfortunately, that group–my group–happens to have a longstanding history of treating non-European, non-white cultures pretty badly overall. At least, that’s how I see it.
      Maybe if I were living in Japan, I would be writing about how I find it really offensive when people dress up as white stereotypes. I don’t know.

      I’m not actually trying to define anyone’s Halloween experience, I’m just trying to sort things out myself. It’s complicated, as you note. I think there are certain lines in the sand that can be drawn, but I think the more conversations we all have where we respect where everyone’s coming from and come to the middle ground with one another, and keep a sense of humor, the better things will be! Maybe one day a stupid, goofy holiday won’t need an investigatory conversation.

      • Jake

        I can understand where the misunderstandings can come from, last night I got into a discussion with one of my roommates about children playing “Cowboys vs. Indians” and she was of the thought that children playing this game was harmless, innocent fun. My opinion toward that, is that the intent of the game, is that Cowboys are the “good guys” and Indians are the “bad guys”. In that vain, portraying the Native American peoples in a negative connotation is indeed, damaging. It’s not necessarily a purposefully damaging action, but the intent of the game itself is one of reinforcing that the Westward expanding whites were doing the right thing and that the Natives needed to be wiped out.

        That’s one thing that I think this whole conversation seems to kind of skirt around, intent. Intent does need to come into play. If we ignore the intent of the people wearing the costumes, then we are only dealing with the very surface of an issue. Like one poster above commented, what do you tell your 6 year old daughter who wants to dress as Tiger Lily?

        I understand that people may get offended by a costume portraying a different culture, but unless the intent of that wearer is to offend, I think there needs to be some understanding. I saw a parody of those same posters, where the person holding one of the posters was “Snooki” from Jersey Shore. She was holding a picture of someone wearing a “Snooki” costume, with all the same text of the other posters. In this example, the costume could be mocking all people of Italian decent in the New Jersey/New York area, but in reality, they’re probably just mocking that one individual who has rose to prominence.

        As I posted on Bitch Magazine’s FB, the president of the poster movement has in giant lettering, taking up most of the top of her Tumblr, lyrics from a Kanye West song. For someone who is upset at people furthering cultural stereotypes and the problems associated with said stereotypes, how can that person also support a culture that has done far more to damage the identity of blacks in this country? I’m sure we’ve all seen the “Read a Book” video (Bomani Armah) as well as the “Eat Dat Watermelon” video (Nick Cannon, NAS, Affion), both videos bringing to light that rap culture has been a damaging medium in its current fashion. I think if someone is going to be offended about something, they should be consistent in their attitudes. The exclusions don’t lend credibility to their movement.

    • carrieleilamlove

      Hi Jake —

      I’m sorry you found what I said offensive. Also based on your response, I think you may have taken the statement out of context a bit. I by no means believe that people having light skin or not looking to other people like they are a part of the cultural or racial group they come from invalidates their cultural identity.

      I do however, believe that looking like a white person gives you white privilege. It’s more complicated than that — there are class markers and all sorts of other things that affect privilege and others perceptions of you, but one only has to look to the history of “passing” to see that looking like a white person puts you in a position of relative privilege to others in your group. I say this as a black woman who is lighter skinned than many other black people and consistently aware that this means I get treated differently by strangers than my darker skinned friends.

      But does this mean I think that just because you look like a white person you have no claim to your cultural or racial background? 100% No! I’m glad you brought it up because I can see how my following qualifying statement of “Doesn’t mean that you cannot claim your cultural/ethnic/racial heritage and be proud of it” might not totally clarify where I was coming from with the initial statement.

      And I definitely second Michael’s thoughts about the difference between dressing up as a Geisha vs. a Policeman — If we lived in a world with a level playing field, then all of these costume choices could be viewed equally. But we don’t live in that world. We live in a world where the stereotype of a submissive, sexualized Asian woman actually endangers the physical well-being of Asian women, and where the image of the Geisha has been used to perpetuate that stereotype, even if the real history of the Geisha tells a different story. The image of a policeman has never been used to my knowledge to represent a narrative that is damaging to a particular group in this way.

      Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts.


      • carrieleilamlove

        OH — also — I don’t see how someone posting lyrics from a Kanye song is contradictory to the poster campaign. You seem to be implying that hip-hop culture at large has “done far more to damage the identity of blacks in this country” than racist halloween costumes (although you don’t give a direct comparison so I’m filling in here, please correct me if that was not what you meant).

        For me — Kanye ≠ Hip-Hop Culture, and while he has said some things that personally offend me in the past, I wouldn’t put him on the hook for damaging the rep of black people at large.

        And the “read a book” and “eat dat watermelon” videos — well, I think we have to be careful what we say is “rap culture.” I haven’t seen those videos recently (perhaps i’ll revisit them) but I think that it’s a bit misguided to put the larger share of responsibility for people’s negative ideas about black people on “rap culture” when there is a whole history of oppression to consider.

        For the record, I DO find “white trash” costumes & theme parties EXTREMELY offensive and if I had done the poster campaign I’d have done a poster featuring that costume too. I also find the exploitation/spectacle of a particular working-class Italian subculture a lá Jersey Shore pretty offensive too.


  12. Michael von Braithwaite

    Jake- I think that was very well said. I’m excited to see what (if anything) other folks have to add to that. Issues of chosen exclusion are really interesting and particularly complex. I think about that often right before I go into a rabbit hole of circular thinking and then give up and go “oh my god I can’t think about this anymore right now. I need a cupcake.”

    Maybe people should just stop dressing up as other people (j/k!…sort of). I had a friend who went as a fully-set dinner table one year when she was little (she built a cardboard table around her shoulders and stuck her head through the top with plates glued on around the edges of the table). Maybe we should all just be absurdest inanimate objects.

    Or Muah-Muah Martians. Either way, thanks for bringing so much consideration to this conversation!

  13. Sooz in SF

    A geisha is not a stereotype, any more than a samurai is, or a ninja. It is a specific subculture that has very well-known, identifiable traits. This is not the same as a stereotype. A stereotype is about attributing derogatory traits to a culture and mocking them. I’m quite sure no one is in danger of thinking Asian women actually go around wearing kimonos, white face paint and giant wigs.

    To me Halloween is about invoking spirits and channeling the spirit of other things. I realize that some people are racist-motivated and their costumes are offensive because of their motivations. But some guy who wants to dress up as Pocahontas is not necessarily a racist. I think people should give their costumes careful thought and be prepared to defend their choices when someone wrongly assumes a racist intent. Yes there are insensitive people in the world but before you go leaping to the wrong conclusions, why not ask someone what their costume is about and try to get a feel for where they’re coming from? You might be surprised by the answer.

    • carrieleilamlove

      Hi Sooz —

      I agree that intent is important, but like the old saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Just because something isn’t meant to be offensive doesn’t mean it isn’t offensive. I do not think that every person who dresses up as a Geisha or Pocahontas is doing so to offend and hurt the feelings of people on purpose. In fact, I think most people either don’t think about it much at all or are intending to show how interested they are in that culture! But that *still* doesn’t make it ok. It’s like Michael said in our conversation — why can’t this be a situation where the offender says, “Oh geez, my bad, I totally didn’t mean it that way” and then not do it again?

      I mean that is a somewhat rhetorical question, the reason it cant be that way is because there is so much pain and anger around race in our society that civil conversations are difficult, and because people in oppressed cultures are sick and fucking tired of having to explain all the time why something offends them even if they know people are basically good but misguided people.

      I guess I’m hoping conversations like these can help some? Thanks for reading and contributing to the conversation.


      • Michael von Braithwaite

        I’ll go second. I’m a racist. I often make assumptions about people based on the color of their skin and other identity markers.

        However if I ever get into politics, this never happened. :p

      • Sooz in SF

        “Just because something isn’t meant to be offensive doesn’t mean it isn’t offensive.”

        Hi Carrie, of course. I can guarantee that no matter what you do in life, there are groups of people out there who will manage to find your behavior offensive for some reason or another. So yes, *everything* is offensive, to someone.

        Intention is important because one person may dress up a certain to make fun of a certain thing, while another person may dress up the same way to appreciate it, respect it, and explore its meaning. If someone were to tell me, “I don’t care what their intention was, it’s offensive either way,” I’d think that person was being highly unreasonable.

        I understand what you’re saying about the history of racial oppression and how people who feel offended by it have the need for validation where their sensitivity is concerned. I think that’s fair, and yes, there is a good reason to be sensitive about it. Racism is a really ugly thing. But being called a racist when you’re not is also a really ugly thing.

        • Hi Sooz! I think the problem is a logical one here. One is significantly way uglier than the other, first of all. And second of all, it’s not a binary: “sensitive” people versus “accidental racists.” It’s a big continuum, where there’s all sorts of power structures at play. Most of us don’t consent to them, most of us are oppressed in one way or another, but that doesn’t mean we are off the hook when it comes to oppressing others. I think you can argue until you’re blue in the face about how reasonable or unreasonable you feel another person’s felt sense of racism, sexism, homophobia, or transphobia is–but why? I think that’s a meaningful question to really think about, I know I do. When I have felt riled by things like this, I usually end up landing on a sense that I feel defensive. And, if I’m compassionate to myself, I realize I’m defensive because I feel worried that being accidentally racist or classist or whatever says something bad about me. But I think the point everyone here is making is that it doesn’t. Nothing is wrong with people who are trying their best to be kind and considered in their approach to the world. Sometimes we are surprised to find out that something we intended to be an “exploration” or an “honoring” is actually, to the person “honored,” offensive. That is a crappy feeling. But if we can get past our own sense of insult and shame, then maybe there’s something worth thinking about there. Not a “right” or “wrong” or “racist” or “sensitive,” but room for growth and discussion. And I think the point is that people in power–all of us, in one way or another, whether that be race or class or sex or gender identity or ability–have a special responsibility to be quiet with ourselves in these moments, and really listen to what the person not in power is saying. Not as a struggle, a right/wrong, but as a fertile place to get to know ourselves and each other better. Sorry to get all woo-woo, but I really feel troubled about these sorts of dialogues, especially because I think, in so many ways, they’re centered around shame. Racism is shame-based, as is oppression. And I think that nobody wants to hold that shame, so it gets pushed onto others. But nobody deserves to feel like a bad person, and everybody does things that are hurtful, and nobody deserves to be hurt, even by our best intentions. Peace.

      • Sooz in SF

        Hi Thomas, “room for growth and discussion” sounds great to me. That is what I’m encouraging by suggesting that someone ask what a costume is meant to be about rather than making assumptions. Because maybe a person might feel offended even if they know the offending party meant to honor them, but why should we assume that they will? Maybe they won’t. On the other hand, a person who is being a jerk about it will quickly reveal their true colors. I’m not trying to say “this should offend you” or “this shouldn’t offend you”. Your sensitivity lies where it lies and you have the right to defend that. All I’m saying is don’t make assumptions. And yes, there’s always room for growth and discussion all around. Peace

  14. Melissa

    ❤ Love this! Thanks for this, Ironing Board Collective. And hey, we have the same WordPress theme! Go figure.

  15. Pingback: “We’re a culture, not a costume.” STARS, a student org at Ohio University « Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

  16. Hi! I’m also racist sometimes. And xenophobic, sexist, transphobic, and homophobic. I make assumptions about others and sometimes even myself based on sex, gender, race, culture, and a bunch of ugly stuff I’ve internalized. I try to be aware of it every day, I try to catch it before I act on it, and sometimes I fail. Then, as Beckett said, I try to fail better next time.

    • gillian bell

      Thanks for this insightful discussion, all. Way to raise the conversation from “is it okay to dress up as a cultural stereotype?” (which, no, obviously, it is not.) to a whole different level, and make me laugh a lot while you were going there.

      I think the best Halloween costumes are the ones where you look deep inside your own darkness, get into your own groovy soul, and dress as yourself. Your spleen! You, on a Wednesday morning, after staying up too late watching six episodes of Breaking Bad in a row! You, after eating a family sized package of Ho-Hos from the Hostess Thrift Store!

      Halloween is a holiday where self obsession and individuality should be encouraged. Fewer sexy cats, more weird crazy cat ladies. Yes please.

  17. For more thoughts on white privilege (in this case, a beautifully articulate mediation on the idea of white people and the concept of “unity” in the Occupy movement), check out this excellent post:

    I think my last comment here is that white people, cisgender people, straight people, able-bodied people, economically privileged people, etc. and so on all have a responsibility to teach ourselves and each other. Almost everyone is marginalized in some way, but if we remain in those spots and only speak from there, we’re not really being fair to ourselves or anyone else. I think it takes bravery to own up to accidental racism, to be willing to be wrong, to challenge the white privilege (as outlined in the post I linked to) of always being right. And the more privileged you are, the more courage it takes to knock those walls down. Introspection and accountability, FTW!

    • I love Halloween, but every year, I’m unwittingly thrust into this debate because I’m a Native activist.

      Maybe involving Indian folks conversation would be a way toward working toward resolution? I’ve found non-Natives are most often the ones who are the most vocal about cultural appropriation, yet no one ever approaches us for our point of view.

      • Hi Samuel. This is obviously a forum for discussion. Please do share your point of view. It’s most welcome.

      • Thanks, Thomas! I appreciate your response.

        Halloween is over, but bad fashion ideas linger and forecasters are predicting more Indigenous trends to come in 2012.

        Instead of an ex-facto commentary on fashion faux pas, what if IBC approached some Native fashion designers for an interview?

        Beyond Buckskin is a blog by Dr. Jessica Metcalf that may interest some readers. Maybe an interview with an Indigenous person would allow for conversation on this topic in an inclusive manner?

        • Hi Samuel! Thanks for this thought. Just a side note: the conversation between Carrie and Michael was actually just a private dialogue between a person of color and a white woman, meant to explore some of the ways racism affects costume choice. I don’t think either of them intended to represent any perspective other than their own, or that they were at all discussing things on a surface “fashion faux pas” level, but rather I felt they shared a deep discussion that they hoped might spark more thoughtful discussion elsewhere. That’s my take of course, but I just wanted to clarify that this dialogue was clearly not focused on “fashion faux pas’ ” but on the connection between racism and costuming.
          That being said, further discussion on this matter and the inclusion of an Indigenous person to add the the dynamic perspectives presented is a great idea. Please feel free to email us (use the email in the submission guidelines) with her contact info! And thanks for reaching out.

      • That was an early am attempt at humor when I threw the term “faux pas” around like that, all willy-nilly. My bad.

        The dialogue was excellent and has been a base for discussion among friends of mine who are also native as to what is (or conversely, isn’t) appropriation within Indigenous communities. We do not practice costuming, per se, but view our non-street clothes as regalia, but I digress.

        Bunky Echo-Hawk is an FB acquaintance of mine and he’d mentioned attending the NCAI fashion show was today. I thought that may be of some interest to you. Will keep you posted.

  18. Bella

    If one wants to argue bias towards ethnicity, race and so on, I think they should leave Halloween out of the picture. This is a one time a year to try and be someone you are not. A geisha costume sounds good. A person could dress up as an Italian pizza maker with a long moustache, or wear a fez and be a Turk for the day. Same goes for being Pocahontas, she was an actual historical figure, what’s wrong with being her? And why is it then that there are no problems with being, Athena, per say, for Halloween? Or even Elvis? Dressing up as a witch could also be offensive, with the logic you are all presenting, because witches are actual, living, breathing people who practice the Wicca religion. I don’t believe anyone gets harmed unless the one wearing the outfit intentionally tries to slam that particular ethnicity

    It seems as though some are so wound up inside about the diversity topic. Which is great, but not for Halloween, a day for fun. I mean, come on; as the years have passed cultures around the world have turned Halloween into something it was not originally supposed to be. Why hasn’t there been talk about St. Patrick’s Day? Again, according to the blogs logic, there’s a lot of stereotyping in that holiday too. But come on, again, no one gets harmed unless the costume intentionally is slamming a culture.

    I do think that one shall be more open minded when it comes to Halloween. Does this mean if I dress up as a cop I am making fun of the entire police force? If I dress up as a whore, am I advocating prostitution? Wow, let Halloween be Halloween, and have fun!

    Please don’t delete this comment. In no way am I a hater, I just do not understand the logic of your argument.

  19. Kalos Kagothos

    I was called out on my costume this year. I was at a house party and a ‘holier-than-thou’ accused me of being ‘ignorant’ because she felt I was racist having decided my costume was a caricature of the Chinese race.

    I pointed out that my shirt was yellow and asked her if she was aware that wearing yellow in imperial China was a capital offense. She said she wasn’t aware. I then explained that the reason why it was a capital offense is because the use of the colour was the exclusive privilege of the emperor and in fact, so was the use of the dragon symbol (a five clawed dragon was the exclusive trademark of the emperor. Imperial princes of the imperial family were still permitted to use dragons as their symbols but these beasts had only four claws). You see, I told her, I’m not dressed as a stereotype, I’m a particular individual, the Qianlong Emperor (乾隆帝) who reigned from 1735-1796 and abdicated the thrown to his son out of respect for his grandfather, the Kangxi Emperor (康熙帝) so as not to reign longer than him. She got bored and wasn’t really interested in the story behind my costume and found someone else to talk to. And I’m the ‘ignorant’ one.

    • Thanks for your comment. Unfortunately, I am not sure you’ve proven your point. Are you, yourself, Chinese? If not, you can’t understand why dressing in traditional Chinese attire, even if you are going for the look of a particular historical individual, might be misconstrued? I think it’s an interesting point that dressing beyond stereotype (as you did) is another moving part that can be included in the discussion, but calling someone “holier than thou” who understandably misinterpreted your costume as stereotypical, and then seemingly taking great pleasure in “educating” that person on your historical knowledge doesn’t seem like a thoughtful contribution to a larger concern about racism and stereotype. You certainly are free to dress as historical figures but if you are not–and it seems you are not from the presentation of this comment, so please disregard if I am wrong–in fact, Chinese, it also seems unreasonable to not consider why it might strike someone as racist who doesn’t immediately understand your costume which–in the defense of the “holier than thou” person–I’m pretty sure would be most people outside of a history department. Thanks for pointing out, however, that some people might be interested in representing real people in history with their costume–but I still think, ultimately, those people are not exempt from conversations about the perceptions of their costumes.

IBC LOVES your brain, and we encourage thoughtful, lively discussion. We will, however, moderate comments that are abusive or disrespectful. Stay classy!

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