When 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?