I’ve been participating on the A question about Halloween and costumes… thread over at Roy’s place. Basically it’s a discussion about what makes a Halloween costume racist and to what extent, if at all, we can dress up as figures from other countries.
I wanted to bring some of the discussion over here and see what other people thought. So, first off, the question:
I think Sov raises a good question- is it the generic stereotypes that are offensive, or is it also offensive for someone to dress up as a specific historical figure or character, even if it’s done “in a respectful way”?
And here’s what I said:
As for sov’s question, I’m not entirely sure. It’s definitely better because if you’re taking the time to research the appropriate historical detail chances are you’re trying to be aware and respectful of the original culture and learning stuff in the process.
But let’s take it back to the issue of blackface. Say I was into African history and wanted to do something with that. Say I really admired Yaa Asantewa for how she fought against the colonialists and so I dressed up as her for Halloween or some other event as an attempt to start conversation about her and raise awareness of the history of colonization in Africa.
Would that be blackface?
My instinct says yes. Despite my good intentions, there is the whole history of black-white relations to consider, as well as the ongoing racism and continued use of blackface by the media and individuals. It’s the same reason why white people cosplaying as Drow is problematic, despite the Drow being a fictional race.
Then we take it into Kimberley’s experience [this comment] and ask: is that yellowface? Does it carry the same weight and connotations as a white person dressing up as a black historical figure?
The line here isn’t as clear for me because the Asian American history and experience is different from that of black Americans.
I’m also coming from a different perspective; that of a white woman living in Japan. I don’t have a kimono or yukata here, but I do wear jinbei sometimes in the summer, and if I had a yukata I’d probably wear it to festivals and stuff. When I went on a family spa trip in California I wore my jinbei around instead of the bathrobe because it was more comfortable.
Do I engage in cultural appropriation? If not, how/when would the line be crossed? Does it make a difference that I have a BA in Asian Studies and can speak the language fluently enough that I’m going to be attending school here in the spring?
I really don’t have any answers to this. It’s a really tricky subject that involves consideration not just of current power dynamics and racial history, but also of the context as well as the person’s knowledge and intent.
Cultural appropriation is a really tough subject for me, not the least of which because I am constantly questioning to what extent my privilege is interfering with my ability to make a fair judgment on the matter.
So, readers, I’m taking this to you. What are your feelings on the matter? What about the points I raised, do you agree or disagree? Have you had similar experiences — either with dressing up as someone from a different culture, or with someone else who has done the same?