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Ethnic Halloween Costumes – Honor or Offense?

Al Jolson Blackface Halloween CostumesToday a good friend of mine, Dana Anquoe — who has Native American heritage — posted this on Facebook:

i don’t understand why people feel the need to be another ethnicity for Halloween. I just…i give up trying to understand…

While she and others have posted about this issue in general in the past, In this case she linked to an article outlining how Julianne Hough was all get down sorry for being racially insensitive for dressing in “blackface” for a Halloween party.

Now I’m no fan of Julianne Hough. She’s a great dancer, an awful actress, and, well, that’s all I know about her. But the truth is, she wasn’t dressed in blackface.

What Blackface Is — and What Blackface is Not

Hough was dressed as a character named Crazy Eyes in some show I’ve never seen. And the character happens to be a black women, so she put brown makeup on her face to make her look more like the character she was dressing as. Kind of like, I don’t know, when people dye their hair red to look more like Lucille Ball or Napoleon Dynamite. (Oh, the offense we gingers must endure!)

Then she was systematically smacked down by a media who doesn’t know what blackface actually is.

For the record, blackface is not wearing brown makeup to make your skin look darker. In which case all ballroom dancers — and anyone else who spray tans — should be blackballed as racist bigots. Rather:

Blackface is a form of theatrical makeup used in minstrel shows, and later vaudeville, in which performers create a stereotyped caricature of a black person.

Stereotyped caricature. As in Al Jolson (pictured above) and Eddie Cantor. And even Shirley Temple. Did you get that people? It’s a stereotyped caricature: formulaic, hackneyed, lampoonish imitation of a person in which striking characteristics are exaggerated in order to create a comic or grotesque effect.

Which is just not the same as actually trying to look like someone.

So, yea, if she’d gone in real blackface, I’d understand the uproar. But from what I can see, she was just making a rather lame attempt to dress up like a character who happens to be black.

The Real Beef is Skin Color

So is the real issue that Hough dressed up as someone with a different skin color and went beyond just an outfit? And that’s just not allowed? Whites can only dress as white characters? Blacks can only dress as black characters?

No black Cinderellas, people! And no white Tianas!

Is this really what “color blind” is supposed to look like?

Monica just carved a jack-o-lantern (orange, by the way) themed after The Princess and the Frog. Was this racially insensitive or does she just think it’s the best Disney movie ever? Should she have painted her pumpkin brown? Was making Tiana orange an outrage?

Isn’t skin just a color like hair is just a color?

Why Dress as An Ethnic Character?

The non-blackface debacle aside, is there any good reason to dress as an ethnic character? Isn’t this just hurtful and insensitive and bigoted?

Sure there are exceptions and there can be disrespect (as there can in anything). But in general people dress up with the garb of other cultures because it’s cool! They do it because they love the clothing and look and sometimes have personal affinity or experience with the culture. Not because they think it’s stupid or because they are mocking the ethnicity or culture, but because they admire it.

Why must this be offensive?

Next week my 10-year-old son, Caleb, is going to be a pioneer. Why? Because he loved his costume in Deseret. And he thinks being a real pioneer would have been cool and awesome.

One year my husband traveled to Korea and brought home some gorgeous, authentic clothing that my girls wore. It was stunning workmanship and so fancy and beautiful.

In past years we’ve also had some very fun Samoan costumes, because my husband lived there for five years and we love Polynesian culture. Anything Poly is good here. (And we have a “shrine” to Samoa in our family room.)

Past costumes have included American Victorian, Scottish, Romani (my favorite costume when I was a kid, bar none), and Mexican.

If I could afford to do something every year I’d be Indian (wow!) or Sarawak, or anything intricate and bejeweled. (I’m still a pageant girl at heart.)

When I was a kid I would watch the Order of the Arrow boys do the hoop dances and I was so jealous. I never wanted to be a cowboy (or girl — unless, maybe, you could get the whole deal with chaps and all), because, are you kidding, who had the best clothes? What in the world can beat a feathered Native American headdress for pure gorgeousness? n.o.t.h.i.n.g.

Ethnic Costumes Are the Best Costumes

What costumes can possibly be better than the most fabulous workmanship of various cultures and eras in the world? Maybe a skanky witch or a sexy nurse? A bunny (probably Playboy, right)? Or maybe an inanimate object, a video game character, or a futuristic person (which, of course, always includes neck to ankle spandex)?

I can’t think of anything better — or more respectful — than dressing up as authentically as possible as someone from a different culture or ethnicity or heritage.

Sometimes I think we need to take a step back and take the imitation as what it usually is: the sincerest form of flattery.

{ 8 comments… add one }
  • Candies October 27, 2013, 10:09 pm

    I just saw this linked on fb. Thanks for some common sense to this discussion. I know sometimes people are disrespectful but the whole _I’m a culture not a costume_ thing is just stupid if you ask me.

    Get a grip. We dress up like you because we LIKE you!

  • frankv October 27, 2013, 10:11 pm

    When I see someone dressed up like my nationality, I run up and say, “Hey, dude! That’s me!” Makes me proud.

    I think people are just looking to be offended sometimes. Let’s just have fun.

  • Connor October 28, 2013, 11:51 am

    When something is made fun of I can see the point, like black face. But when something is done because it’s admired, I don’t.

    It’s kind of like the mascot issue, really.

  • Alison Moore Smith October 28, 2013, 7:27 pm

    Thanks for your responses.

    It’s kind of like the mascot issue, really.

    So true. One of the major universities here, University of Utah, has long had the mascot “the running Utes,” referencing the Ute Indians that were indigenous to the region. (Or at least more indigenous or earlier indigenous or whatever than the pioneers were. I mean didn’t they move here at some time, too?)

    It never seemed to me that they chose the Utes as their name/mascot because they thought Utes were stupid. Rather, that they were strong and mighty.

    Now before someone jumps up and points out the obvious, that Ute Indians aren’t animals like, say, the BYU cougars, let’s look at some other local mascots that also are not animals, but rather people the locals admire:

    • Bingham High School – Miners
    • Jordan High Schohol – Beetdiggers
    • Utah State University – Aggies
    • Lehi High School – Pioneers
    • Pioneer High School – Olympians

    And looking around further I see:

    • Notre Dame Fighting Irish
    • New England Patriots
    • Rochester Americans
    • Edmonton Eskimos
    • Vancouver Canucks
    • Boston Celtics
    • New York Knicks
    • Minnesota Vikings
    • Saint Mary’s College Gaels
    • MacMurry College Highlanders
    • Western Connecticut State Colonials
    • San Diego State Aztecs
    • Brooklyn Italians
    • University of Northern Colorado Fighting Whites
    • Hawaii Rainbow Warriors (and Wahine for women)
    • Maryville College Fighting Scots
    • Whitman Missionaries
    • Albion College Britons
    • Northern Kentucky Norse
    • San Jose State Spartans
    • University of Southern California Trojans
    • West Virginia Mountaineers

    The list goes on and on. And on.
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  • Kev567 October 29, 2013, 11:43 am

    Fighting Whites? Best.

    I’ve always tried to go along with the “be sensitive” mantra but have to admit it doesn’t make sense given all these other mascots. If Native American ones are offensive (the only group I’ve heard complaining) then they all are. And they just aren’t. It’s pretty lame and victim mentality exposed.

  • Chanel November 19, 2013, 6:27 pm

    Actually brown make-up is still black face and racially insulting, she could have gone as crazy eyes without painting herself brown to look like a black person, which is indeed blackface.
    Also you’re cute Korean dress story is also fine, as long as you don’t try to paint slanty eyes to be more Asian.
    But really, as a white person, what you think doesn’t matter, you have white privilege.
    And I don’t where you live, but I see black cinderellas and white tiana’s, they just don’t paint their skin. They wear the dress and maybe a wig.

  • Alison Moore Smith November 20, 2013, 12:44 am

    Chanel, sorry, no. Blackface has a specific, it’s in the picture. You can’t redefine the term just so you can stomp around feeling justified in your anger. And “blackface” does NOT mean “making your skin darker than it is.”

    She got a spray tan and spray tans aren’t insults — nor are they blackface.

    Companies make money giving spray tans BECAUSE people LIKE darker skin. Yes, she could have gone without getting a spray tan. And she could have gone without the hair. And she could have worn a pink frilly dress. But when you dress up like a character, you’re usually trying to LOOK like the character and the more things you can do to look like the character, the BETTER the costume is.

    No, we didn’t try to pain slanty eyes on my girls. But what if we HAD. It wouldn’t have, ipso facto, been racist. “Racist” also has a meaning, and the definition is NOT “making yourself look like another race.” It means thinking one race is SUPERIOR to another. Using makeup to try to make your eyes look more Asian (or you skin more black) simply don’t have anything to do with thinking one race is superior to another.

    For the record, I’m not white. I’m what we affectionately call “pasty.” And, rather than “privileged” I called it “tortured.” I’m freckled and red-headed and have 0 melanin. And I DREAMED of looking like Janet Jackson as a kid.

    Anyway, how dare those nasty little Cinerellas and Tianas wear WIGS! That’s blackhair. Or whitehair. And it’s racially insulting and insensitive. Oh, and have you seen those hateful bigotry-filled ARIEL costumes???? Wah!
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