How I Plan To Tackle Racist Halloween Costumes With My Daughter

racist halloween costumesWhen I was in second grade, I wore what would be one of my favorite Halloween costumes: a beaded brown dress with a matching brown pouch and feathered headdress. I was a Native American. You know, the generic kind. I suppose if you’d asked me, I would’ve said I was a Cherokee (rumor has it there’s some Cherokee on my dad’s side, but my red tresses and blue eyes would suggest otherwise). Anyway, I recently read about an uproar in the Indian community caused by white people wearing “Navajo” patterned clothing and feathered headdresses as hot fashion items. Something plummeted in me as I wondered, was my childhood Indian costume racist?

I told my half-Chinese husband of this epiphany, and he raised his eyebrows, surprised that I was just now realizing this. He told me he grew up wincing at stereotypical ethnic costumes, that this was nothing new to him. I was blown away. And because I like to get riled up, I made it my new cause to investigate the costumes on today’s market.

Here’s what I found. On a costume website under “Chinese Costumes,” we have something called “Confucius Facial Fur,” which is “great for a Kung Fu Fighter or an Evil King.” The term “fur” is a head-scratcher in itself, but to pair Confucius’s name with the suggestion that his so-called fur could be used to represent a fighter or evil king is making a mockery of a real icon in Chinese history.

Then, the subcategories of the Chinese Costume section include “ninja costumes, geisha costumes, samurai (which is actually Japanese, dear reader) costumes and Jackie Chan costumes.” Jackie Chan? What the what? If I were a kid searching online for a Halloween costume and I didn’t know any better, I would draw the conclusion that all Chinese people are ninjas, geishas, samurai or Jackie Chan.

And racism against Asians is only the tip of this gargantuan Halloween costume iceberg. On the same website, there’s also the Mexican Serape costume, featuring a white male model with a painted-on mustache wearing a cheap sombrero and holding a plastic gun in each hand. Never mind that you’ll be hard-pressed to find a modern Mexican man wearing a sombrero and waving guns in the air—isn’t it disturbingly reminiscent of blackface to see painted-on facial hair used to depict a “typical” Mexican person?

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  • Courtney Lynn

    You might like the blog Native Appropriations by Adrienne Keene. She also has a FB page.

  • Meghan

    This is ludicrous… sounds like you’re the one making ridiculous assumptions when you say “If I were a kid searching online for a Halloween costume and I didn’t know any better, I would draw the conclusion that all Chinese people are ninjas, geishas, samurai or Jackie Chan.” … I’d like to give the average kid more credit than that!

    • Amanda Low

      So sorry, it was my feeble attempt at satire.

    • AmandaMNN

      Very feeble. Seriously, this is utterly stupid. Wearing native costume as a halloween costume is not racist. Dressing up in blackface, or taping your eyes back to slant them .. that would be racist. Wearing a ninja costume? Really? Jesus. I consider myself a liberal and try to avoid offending people but this is really ludicrous.

    • Christopher Crowson

      Also, ninja are Japanese like samurai are.

    • Christopher Crowson

      Also, ninja are Japanese like samurai are.

  • ted

    so tired of the overreaction. A ninja costume is not racist. It’s the same as a child wanting to dress up as a policeman. it’s a historical figure. Racism comes from a place of hurt and meanness. wanting to look like a figure that is known for fighting/skills/stealth etc is not from a place of meanness nor is dressing up like a ninja insulting to a ninja. Where is the insult. is it insulting if someone of chinese descent dresses up like british royalty? No. the fact that the person in the costume is not the same ethnicity as the character doesn’t matter. That’s what costumes are for-being something you’re not. I’m frustrated and tired of people trying to see the bad in something innocent.

    • Amanda Low

      True that! My intent was to focus more on what might be offensive today — the odds of a real ninja coming up to a child dressed in a ninja costume are admittedly pretty slim, but my main example of the Indian costume fiasco is much more relevant, and that was intended to be the focus.

    • ted

      I understand that the likelihood of a ninja coming up to a child is lower than him/her running into an aboriginal person but I think we need to separate the traditional type character from the current peoples. Most aboriginals don’t dress in traditional clothing except on special occasions or performances. The same goes for most other outfits that pop up as costume choices-geisha, mariachi, etc. I’m not poking fun at an aboriginal or trying to be mean when I dress as one in something similar to their traditional garb and the other point we miss is that these are children. They are watching disney movies or reading fantastical books that have these types of characters and that’s what they’re portraying. Why do we not look at the fact that a child wants to dress up as a geisha as something neat because they obviously find the outfit pretty or that the story of Pocahontas is interesting and they want to dress up like her one day out of the year.

    • Mister Crowley

      Did you ever stop to think of why aboriginal people don’t wear traditional clothing except on *special* occasions or during performances showcasing their culture? And of why someone not of that culture wearing traditional, ceremonial clothing might tick them off just a little?

    • ted

      I absolutely have stopped to think about it, in fact I thought about it while taking the time to carefully write my comments. I would think that by reading my comments you could see that they had been written thoughtfully with time taken to explain myself as opposed to just scribbling down the first thoughts that came to mind. I absolutely don’t see why someone of any culture/race/ethnicity would take offense to someone wearing their traditional garb for halloween when it’s done without malice. I think it should be seen as someone taking interest in that culture/outfit for various reasons and should be a positive thing. My father is from Scotland and I don’t take offense any time I see someone wearing a kilt. If they were wearing it and running around flashing people I might take offense but a 6 year old wearing it at Halloween because he or she thought it was neat isn’t offensive at all.

    • Mister Crowley

      It doesn’t personally offend me when I see someone wearing a kilt, but it does annoy me, because it feels disrespectful of my cultural heritage. I also have close Scottish heritage- it’s something that is very, very important to my mother’s family. However, neither of us is wrong in our feelings on people wearing kilts.

      If aboriginal person says “Hey, I find you as a white person wearing ceremonial Native wear offensive”, then, in the interests of not being an ignorant asshole, you (general you, not specific) should stop doing it.

    • lanka

      I live in Scotland and I see guys wearing kilts as they would any kind of formal wear for all sorts or parties and things. It doesn’t really seem to be treated as solely a ceremonial outfit.

    • TaeKwonMom

      I agree. My son is going as a martial artist…which he *is* in real life. Our entire family are tae kwon do practitioners, and guess what? We also bothered to educate ourselves about Korean history, culture, and language while learning our art. His costume choice isn’t making fun of anyone, it’s telling the world how awesome we think tae kwon do is. There are racist costume choices, for sure. But there are also respectful homages to really cool aspects of different cultures.

    • Stacy C

      If you think that things like this ( are “historical” representations, you are sorely mistaken. These costumes aren’t accurate depictions of historical professions – they are ignorant stereotypes.

    • nevilleross

      A ninja costume isn’t racist, but a costume of a First Nations person sure is, as is the insulting costume shown in the picture above.

  • Brian

    dressing like a specific nationality as a costume is not “racist.” As long as it is not done with disrespect, it is no different than someone in India dressing up like someone from the US. We just have less interesting outfits here.

    • Mister Crowley

      Dude, appropriating a culture by wearing, for example, a war-bonnet specific to the Plains nations? That’s disrespectful by default. There is no way to respectfully appropriate another person’s cultural identity. If you want to wear an interesting outfit, go ahead. Just make sure that outfit isn’t ripping off someone else’s cultural symbolism.

    • loveandrockets88

      Where are you buying your Halloween costumes??? Because I have yet to see a war-bonnet specific to the Plains nation anywhere ever – well, except maybe in a museum and they frown when you try to borrow them.

    • Shea

      War bonnets are by definition specific to the Plains nations. Even if you’re wearing one you made yourself out of dyed chicken feathers and paper, congratulations, you’ve just symbolically appropriated an item of dress sacred to various Plains tribes.

      I guarantee you, if you walk up to a group of Natives while wearing such a getup, they won’t think, “Oh, this white dude/chick is respectfully honouring our culture by wearing a facsimile of a war bonnet! We must congratulate him/her on his/her fabulous costume!” At the least, they’ll think you’re kind of a dumbass; at worst, they’ll be heartily offended and let you know why.

      Several people have suggested the blog Native Appropriations, and I second that. The blogger, a bona fide Native woman, repeatedly explains the concept better than I, being a white Scottish-Canadian, can.

    • loveandrockets88

      I assumed my last sentence would make it apparent that I was only somewhat serious. And for the record, I am married to a Choctaw and I live in Oklahoma, which has a vast population of Native Americans. Halloween is a holiday celebrated for its fun and frivolity, and I have never, in my fifteen plus years of trick-or-treating in this part of the county, seen anything remotely insensitive. I appreciate your diligence, but you’re taking the idea that we’re all running around in racist costumes way too seriously — although my son did dress as the Hulk one year. Maybe he offended those with anger management issues?

    •årten-Rikard-Nilsson/100003854003712 Lars Mårten Rikard Nilsson

      That’s like saying that if Aliens suddenly visited earth and their latest fashion looked just like Nazi uniforms, you’d think they were being offensive and disrespectful instead of going “hey, what an unfortunate coincidence”…Your argument is stupid, good day.

    • nevilleross

      You want to dress up in some interesting costumes, Brian? Try these:

  • Ordinaryperson

    Isn’t it bad to call Aboriginal people “Indians” in the US? Or is it just my Canadian Native friends who hate to hear that word?

    • Lastango

      Nah. There are tribal groups all over Canada that refer to themselves as an “Indian Band”. That’s what’s on the official signs for their communities, out there along provincial and federal highways for all to read.
      There are some who prefer to be called First Nations instead of “tribe” or “band”, and some who prefer “native peoples”. For a personal reference, some like “aboriginal”, “native”, or “indian” — but there’s no way you could know in advance what any specific person’s own choices are. (The Metis and Innuit are not usually referred to by any of those names).
      But, if you’re on a university campus talking to some white, PC weenie, always use “aboriginal”. You don’t want to be responsible for their TIA when you say “Indian”.

    • Mister Crowley

      The key there is that they refer to *themselves* as “Indian”. It’s not offensive when you call yourself something; it can be offensive if someone outside your specific culture/race/orientation/etc calls you that.

    • ted

      I’m sure I’m going to start a hornet’s nest here but it can be tough to know exactly which moniker you should use for various races and cultures as they change often and some people find some offensive while others don’t. I do understand that what a certain group calls themselves isn’t always acceptable for an outsider to call them but I also think we’ve become way too sensitive when generally, people are not coming from a place of hate.

    • serena

      I think calling them “Indians” is just confusing since you could just as easily be referring to people from India, who after all, are the real Indians. I mean it’s a misnomer because Christopher Columbus got himself confused, I think it’s silly to keep using it. But I guess it depends on what’s commonly used where you live.

    • Helen Donovan

      When I was doing a program for Cherokee youth, I meet with some members of the Tribal Council first. I asked what was the appropriate term; they said Indian. Only the opinion of one band of one tribe (band & tribe their choice of words) but it is OK in SOME cases.

    • Bran Chesterton

      I had the same question when I started working on Indian Law in school. It appears that the term used at least in law is Indian or American Indian. I asked a practitioner who had spent years with various tribes, and he said they all use Indian. He also said that “Native American” is something that they see as broader in definition – it includes native people from Alaska, Mexico, Canada, even the Islands. So Indian, as I was told, is specific to the peoples who are native to the United States.

  • RK

    Thank you for this, Amanda. I really appreciated it.

    Brian – there’s a difference between nationality and ethnicity. You can be of South Asian descent and be from the U.S., for example.

  • yveselise

    Mexican isn’t a race. It’s a citizanship. “Hispanic” isn’t even a race either, it’s an ethnicity “Hispanic” people, racially, are white. Chinese isn’t a race either. Again, it’s a citizenship. There are many ethnic groups in China, the largest being the Han people. And then racially, most people from China are Asian.

    Dressing up in a traditional looking ETHNIC costume isn’t racist…because that’s not a race. Yes, it is possible to have a racist costume but usually it’s all a big over reaction. Hey dress up as an obnoxious American, who cares. People need to put on their big kid pants and stop getting so offended all the time. A) No one cares. The world does not cater to your feelings B) Again, it is not actually racist anyway.

    PS. I am also “half-Chinese” (I am American. My mother is from China, and my father also from America), if that even matters. To me it doesn’t. But to some people, including the author, your ancestors country-of-origin is a big deal.

  • Lex Gord Fredericks

    I’ve said this elsewhere, but should I as a Hungarian be offended at all the vampire stuff out there? Vlad Tepes (Dracul) is kind of a hero in some parts where my family is from. Isn’t dressing like a vampire, making cereal with Count Chocula and movies with a pedophiliac sparkly vampire ‘racist”? I’m not offended. But should I be?

    Should I feel bad for thinking the costumes of ancient China are beautiful and lovingly making one a few years back to wear at Halloween? I don’t think so personally.

    Just sayin’.

    • Mister Crowley

      I’ll take a stab at this. The term you’re looking for is “cultural appropriation”, not racism. And someone dressing up in a cape and fangs is not appropriating Hungarian/Belgian/Romanian culture. No one looks at a stereotypical Stoker-derived vampire and thinks of Hungary.

      Why? Because Stoker’s Dracula- the iconic character that defined the “modern” vampire, the one immortalized by Bela Lugosi on film- is not specific to any one single culture. Stoker didn’t invent the modern vampire, he just typified it. Dracula is the most well-known vampire novel, but certainly not the first, and Dracula is definitely not the only “modern” vampire, nor was he the first; he’s simply the definitive one.

      He’s an amalgamation of many elements from many cultures, and many historical figures. You’re correct in that Stoker did use Vlad III’s surname, and some other elements for his vampire. He borrowed also from: Elizabeth Bathory, previous vampire novels (Carmilla, John Poliderie’s The Vampyre), Christianity (the whole cross thing? Yeah, that started in the Middle Ages), Judaism, (way before the Middle ages) other mythological creatures such as the Norse draugr, the French loup-garou, other werewolf lore and some types of demons, and bits and pieces of mythology and folklore from all over the world.

      Vampiric beings and vampire lore have been associated with: Greece, Rome, ancient Babylonia, ancient Mesopotamia, southeast Asia, Africa, Persia, literally all of Europe. There are very few cultures that don’t have some form of vampire-like entity.

      Vampires, as a concept, cannot be linked specifically to one single country or culture, and it is impossible to appropriate something that almost every single culture in the world has a version of, or contributed folklore to. Vampires come from everywhere.

    • nevilleross

      Hate to break it to you, Lex, but Vlad Tepes was a tyrant (even though he kept the Ottoman Empire from invading and subjugating his people) and that’s why he’s regarded as he is today. That’s not the same as what’s being done with these costumes, which aren’t really costumes and belong to the cultures in question.

  • HaydenT

    May I direct you to Absolutely fantastic on this issue.

  • Teresa Harris

    Wow. So Asian, Latin, Native American is okay to mock? Would you dress your kid up in blackface? Would you present your (presumably) Caucasion child to your black neighbors in such a costume? Why is it okay to appropriate this? And how are you honoring First Nation people? Do you know any? Research on wikipedia doesn’t count. There are over 500 different tribal groups in the US. We all have different languages, culture, and dress. So sure, slap on that Pocahontas costume from Halloween Spirit. It shows ignorance, entitlement, and a complete cluelessness to the privilege you have. So, bring on the hate. Tell me I hate Halloween. Tell me that your grandmother was a Cherokee Princess. Tell me that your best friend from college was First Nation, and they wore the same costume. Tell me whatever you want so that you can ease your conscience and simutaneously dismiss the very real damage you do to my culture. And this isn’t to the writer. Thank you for this. This is to everyone in the comments.

    • tes

      I don’t think you hate Halloween. I think you just hate. And it must be exhausting.

    • Amber Miller

      So it’s hateful to have pride in your ethnicity and expect others to have a little respect for your culture? Interesting…

    • tes

      It’s not hateful to have pride in your ethnicity. The point of Halloween is to be someone you are not for a day. Yes, Halloween costumes are generalized to make it recognizable to the public, but it is not from a place of meanness and it is not meant to be a realistic portrayal of a particular group.
      For example, most people can recognize a gypsy costume but does it mean that that’s how all gypsies dress? Of course not. Does it mean a person has to live a gypsy lifestyle in order to be one for Halloween? No. Are monks offended when a married man with kids dresses up as a monk for Halloween? Well, if they are, we don’t hear about it.
      People like Teresa are taking Halloween dress up entirely the wrong way, and make it about something it’s not. How can you be sure someone doesn’t know the cultural background of something when they dress up as a certain character? Perhaps they are fascinated by it, and so they dress up as that character for just one day. I think that would be flattering!
      Now if a white person decided to dress up as a criminal, and they painted their face black–now THAT is racist and portrays a negative stereotype. Or dressed up as a Native American, carrying around a beer bottle—that is also racist and a negative stereotype. But a simple Pocahontas-style costume? Not the same thing, and it should not be taken as such.

    • serena

      Dressing as a historical figure does not equate to dressing as a nationality or ethnic group. If someone is simply a Cherokee for halloween, that is clearly racist. But Pocahontas is a historical figure. According to your “logic” if an Asian girl dresses up as Einstein she’s racist and mocking European Jews. Well I’m American but my grandparents are Iranian so do let me know what it’s ok to dress up as Teresa. Shall I be that disgusting Ahmadinejad or can I go as the lovely Sarah Shahi?

      Oh but don’t you dare stick your son in an Aladdin costume Teresa, I find that really offensive to my people! Your kids are limited to First Nation costumes you see, everything else is racist.

    • Mister Crowley

      There is a marked difference between dressing up as Einstein and dressing up as a Jewish stereotype. There is also a marked difference in dressing up as Pocahontas the historical figure, and dressing up as Pocahontas the Disney princess, who is an animated Native stereotype. I think that’s what Teresa is trying to get across.

    • serena

      Nowhere in her rant did Teresa say anything about historical vs animated figures; instead she made ridiculous references to blackface and pocahontas.

      Btw Aladdin/Jasmine are animated Disney characters too last time I checked, I guess it’s a horrible stereotype of middle eastern culture and I should scream at the white kids who come to my door dressed like that this year for culturally oppressing me.

    • Mister Crowley

      Perhaps you would not, but another person from the Middle East may have a different opinion on Disney’s portrayal. They may find it problematic and take offence to it. Neither point of view is wrong, and I’m not saying you’re wrong for *not* taking offence, only that someone who did find it offensive isn’t wrong either.

      I do not find Teresa’s comment to be ridiculous. She is making valid points, which you are ignoring in favour of strawmen and attacking her tone. To dress a non-aboriginal person in ceremonial aboriginal dress, unless sanctioned by aboriginal people is generally considered just as offensive as a white person wearing blackface. She has every right to be angry about someone throwing a Pocahontas/generic “Native” costume from Wal-Mart on without a second thought; it’s ignorant, disrespectful and perpetuates stereotypes. I personally don’t find wearing a Halloween costume is worth that.

  • bumbler

    I agree with most of the other commenters that many off your ideas are off-base. I think it’s funny that americans would dress their daughters as geishas, since most americans (wrongly) associate geishas as prostitutes. So you’re dressing your kid as a japanese prostitute? LMAO

    • serena

      Geishas aren’t prostitutes and it’s not just kids who like to dress up ;)

  • Danielle Gahl

    Have you checked out Take Back Halloween? Great multi-ethnic, pro-female, non-stereotyped costume ideas:)

    • Amanda Low

      I will have to check that out! Thank you.

  • serena

    Dressing up as a Chinese person, Indian person, etc is clearly racist. But dressing up as a specific historical figure or historical/cultural occupation like a samurai isn’t. I mean I’m not White – I’m Persian/Iranian descent – but I would think it’s ok for me to dress up as Kate Middleton or Amelia Earhart rather than have to go as Princess Jasmine just because I’m brown. Fwiw I’m the tooth fairy this year, and she’s multicultural :P

    • cheryl

      I completely agree. If you want to find something to take offense for, you can in pretty much anything. If you choose to assume that people are not trying to be mean and are just enjoying Halloween or whatever costume event they are at, you spend your time being happy instead of assuming everyone is out to hate on you or various other people. What a sad life some people must lead always looking for the bad in things. Should firemen and women be offended when someone dresses up as them for Halloween yet that person hasn’t gone through the rigorous training they had to to qualify to be a fireman or woman? How ridiculous.

  • chickadee

    It seems to me that when a member of a minority group or of a group that has previously been or is currently being discriminated against says, “I find it offensive when you use parts of my culture as a costume” then you should listen. We should not be determining what is justifiable or valid about someone else’s experience simply because it makes us uncomfortable or angry.

    When the Native Americans were systematically decimated and marginalized by a predominantly white culture, it is not unusual to expect them now, today, to still be pissed off that people are using stereotypes to represent them.

    When the Chinese were being used in a more or less slavelike capacity in the nineteenth century and are still victims of unpleasant stereotypes (remember that stupid college girl who mocked Asian students’ accents?), do we actually have the right to tell Asian people who find cultural-appropriation-as-costume that they need to stop being so sensitive?

    I don’t think we need to cover blackface. I hope. It might be helpful, though, to replace whatever group you are currently turning into a costume or stereotype with ‘African-American’ or ‘black’ and see if your idea still sounds like a good one.

    White people and white culture are not usually offended when people try to dress up like them or mock them, simply because that group historically* has been the group in power. Telling people who are on the lower rung of the ladder that the dominant culture deems their sensitive feelings to be wrong is misguided, to say the least.

    *Yes, I do know there are exceptions. My father’s family was shanty Irish and had to deal with signs that said “No Irish Need Apply.” The difference is that it is easier to assimilate when you look like the people in power. That is a lot harder for non-Caucasians. Not that they’d necessarily want to….

    • Amanda Low

      Very well said. Thank you!

    • chickadee

      I meant to say that this was a response to the whole discussion about people being too sensitive. Which I understand, because until you think about things from someone else’s perspective you have less of a clue because most people are totally not trying to mock other cultures by using them for costumes.

      Loved your article, by the way.

    • Amanda Low

      Thank you so much. I appreciate well thought-out comments like yours.

  •årten-Rikard-Nilsson/100003854003712 Lars Mårten Rikard Nilsson

    If this is racist then I’m offended on behalf of adults with brains everywhere… Last time I had a similar argument people thought I was a neo-nazi for wearing “doc martens” boots (which was the only footwear they wore at the time)…and oh yeah that was when we were 12 years old!!! Get a grip on reality people and grow up…

  • loveandrockets88

    Oh my gosh, after reading this thread, I am so glad I live in a tiny little town where the focus of Halloween is …. free candy! Honestly, I could put my kids in black trash bags and call them raisins (oh, sorry – ORGANIC raisins, harvested by fair-wage earners) and their only question would be “What time are we leaving??”

  • Nancy

    I find most of these comments more offensive than some of those costumes! It’s offensive to do a quick google/wikipedia search of another culture and then present it here as if everything you’re saying is definitely pure fact and you are the only that is right.

  • steve

    Ninjas are Japanese. You don’t understand anything.

  • steve

    I’m joking, you are right white people dressing up as Native Americans on halloween is completely, undoubtedly racist in every way possible.

  • Barbara

    Wonderful blog post – but you lost me at the end. For us Indigenous Peoples – even dressing up as the “real Pocahantus” is problematic.In context of ongoing Colonialism – Our cultures, are not costumes. We hope that our non-Native friends understand and respect this.

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