I recently visited the Assistance League Costume Bank, a non-profit costume rental shop in Downtown Los Altos. It housed numerous costumes and vintage gems and the place made for a fun time. I tried on several mascot heads: a chipmunk, chicken, and even an alien. However, as I sifted through the costume racks I stumbled upon a countless number of racist costumes—Native American headdresses, exotic Latin dancing outfits, and Oriental dresses to name a few. I was triggered at the sight of these items in a costume shop, but it was no Earth shattering news to me, evident of a layer of oppression that I always carry with me—I expect this level of disrespect and exploitation when it comes to ethnic cultures.
The white women who volunteered with the non-profit organization were friendly and helpful to my partner and me, two people having fun in a costume store without serious intent to purchase anything. They probably did not realize that any of their costumes were offensive. This is especially true since white people do not have to think about race nearly as often as people of color do—one of their many privileges.
In retrospect, I am still not sure that I would have done anything differently. Would I have told those shop owners that those costumes were racist, offensive, and personally triggering? I was in a strange position: in a predominantly white and affluent town that actually felt quite dystopic and eerie to me; a friendly environment owned and operated by a non-profit organization; I was ultimately in a minority position.
I wish that I could have told them this—that when people put on another culture’s clothing (or “clothing” in the case of phony manufactured garments) and call it a costume, an entire system of values and traditions is reduced to a caricature. Its vibrant history is erased, the strength of its people forgotten. Massacres, oppression, systemic racism imposed upon its people are unacknowledged. Negative stereotypes are reinforced. While the salvaged vintage clothing pieces are quite remarkable, they do not belong in a costume shop: they are beautiful pieces of clothing, and it is time that they are given proper respect and reattached to their profound meanings.
But I just smiled and continued to explore their racks of costumes, not wanting to seem like a fragile Asian girl.
As I was figuring out what costume I would dress up for this Halloween, a black-and-white striped prisoner’s costume caught my attention. I turned to show my partner, telling him “This costume is totally 90s, it just speaks to me! But if I were to go as a “prisoner” I’d have the urge to talk to people about the necessity for a prison reform and how systems of oppression lead to recidivism.” And that sparked the question: at what point is a “costume” considered problematic?
It might not be completely necessary for me to justify a prisoner costume to party goers, as a prisoner costume does not erase or disrespect any culture, traditions, or values. However, it would be personally meaningful for me to use it as an avenue for critical thought—distinguishing popular news images with real social injustices. That is something that strikes me as important. Additionally, it makes me uneasy to consider whether or not a striped prisoner costume would misrepresent a group that is historically composed of marginalized racial groups and socioeconomic groups. There is a great deal to consider when it comes to determining what costumes are appropriate or disrespectful.
There are grey areas and it can be quite confusing at times, but the simplest thing to do is to avoid the costume altogether. If considering someone else’s feelings is not enough reason, just think about the possible conflict and trouble that you will be saving yourself from. A change in costume could make all the difference.
(A useful infographic that poses several good questions to ask yourself when determining whether or not a costume is offensive can be found here: http://www.refinery29.com/offensive-halloween-costume-infographic#.ivm4da:fpBb)
*And by the way, my partner and I will be dressing up as a garlic couplet this year.
by ELAINE LE