Cultural Caricature Costumes

Critique and illustration by: Chris Talbot-Heindl

This time of the year is a rather trying one for people of color. This is the time of the year when all the assholes think they’re being original and clever while really, they are just being assholes.

Imagine you attend a costume party for the Halloween holiday. If you are Native American, I can guarantee there will be people dressed up as “chiefs” and “Indians.” And if you are offended at the caricature they’ve created, the party line is, “Get over yourself.” My response is, “check your white privilege.”

A culture is not a costume. I know it is super easy to throw some feathers in your hair and put them in braids, and to buy a potato sack looking dress and conveniently call yourself “Indian girl.” But it is also incredibly offensive. Costumes that caricaturize and stereotype minorities are never clever or witty. They laugh in the face of very real disparities and discrimination that people of color face on a daily basis.

A member of my husband’s family dressed as an “Indian girl” one Halloween. From across the bar, my cheeks flushed, my anger rose, and I thought to myself, “what a fucking asshole.” Then, as she approached, I learned that asshole was a member of my family. I was affected. At one party, a friend of mine dressed as a “geisha.” I say that in quotes because she was in fact a caricature of a geisha, and her obi was tied incorrectly. Again, from across the bar, I thought to myself, “what a fucking asshole.” As a member of any culture that experiences this kind of discrimination, it feels like one more thing added to an ongoing and never ending pile of bullshit you have to endure; just one more way that you can be made to feel inferior to your white counterparts.

I would like to specify, this does not apply to dressing up like a historical or fictional character from a race different than your own. For instance, if I wanted to dress up like Geordi LaForge, I would find it completely acceptable to do so. I personally would not go so far as to modify the color of my skin (I would be a Caucasian-Native-Japanese-American Geordi LaForge), but I also would not be offended if someone chose to. I think that is a matter of preference.

But, if you do plan on changing the color of your skin to be Geordi LaForge, and someone doesn’t know who that is, plan on your costume being offensive and affecting that person. Similarly, if you are planning on dressing up with your friends as the Village People or as Disney princesses (including Pocahontas), if you stray from your friends, you will end up looking like an asshole. And you will likely remind a Native American person that they are not what people think of when they say American. They are different, they are “the other,” and they are a costume.

Our culture of racism means that the stereotyped cultural costumes have a lasting and damaging affect on people of color. People of color already feel like “the other” in their day-to-day lives as most things in society (down to the way we refer to people of color as Native-American, African-American, while we refer to Caucasian-Americans as simply American) favor a white person. Openly mocking the stereotypes further sets people of color apart.

As Kyle “Guante” Tran Myhre reflected in his article, “On Reframing the Debate Around Racist Halloween Costumes,” “This is never just about Halloween; it’s about whose stories and histories are valued in our society. It’s about how stereotypes dehumanize entire communities and lead to policies and practices that hurt people. It’s about making the connections between the so-called ‘little things’ (like Halloween costumes, but also like Miss Saigon at the Ordway, the name of the football team based in our nation’s capital, and much more) and the larger reality of oppression.”

And if someone mentions to you that your costume has affected them negatively, or that you are an asshole, know this: it doesn’t matter if you were trying to be a racist or to stereotype a culture, the fact is you did. That person has every right to be offended, and the obligation lays on you to vocalize your excuse, not something that person should “get over.” You acted poorly; you deal with the consequences.

Or better yet, when you are planning your Halloween costume this year, don’t be an asshole.