“We’re a culture, not a costume”

Young Asian woman holding a photo of someone dressed as a geisha, with the words "This is not who I am and this is not okay"

It’s Halloween season folks, and with that also comes the season when politically-minded people cringe at the plethora of offensive halloween costumes that will invariably decorate the shelves. Maya wrote about “sexy” costumes last week.

With that in mind, a really poignant ad campaign, of which the poster below is a part, is circulating the interwebs this season, courtesy of Students Teaching About Racism in Society (STARS) a group from Ohio State University. Their group mission:

To educate and facilitate discussion about racism and to promote racial harmony and to create a safe, non-threatening environment to allow participants to feel comfortable to express their feelings.

Our former Editor Ann Friedman put together a really great non-sexist, non-racist Halloween costume ideas post in 2009. I tried to imitate her last year. Links below!

Some Non-Racist, Non-Sexist Halloween Costume Ideas

Still looking for Halloween costume ideas?

Via Mother Jones tumblr

Join the Conversation

  • http://feministing.com/members/calzone/ Amy

    I think this campaign is fantastic, which is why I want to point out that it actually came from a student group from Ohio University not Ohio State University. It’s an easy mistake, but they are actually two totally different schools.

    • http://feministing.com/members/calzone/ Amy

      I’m sorry I so instantly jumped into criticism mode. I’ve been reading Feministing for a long time and this is my first comment because I attended OhioU, so I’m incredibly happy and proud that this student group getting national attention for something with such a great impact. Thank you for featuring it.

      • http://feministing.com/members/toongrrl/ toongrrl

        Well you just pointed out a fact, you weren’t mean about it

  • http://feministing.com/members/melisa/ Melisa

    The student organization is from Ohio University, not Ohio State. The link even says so. I used to go to OU, so I know students from there often feel insulted when they are called Ohio State students.

  • http://feministing.com/members/leahrk/ Leah

    I went looking for some Halloween props yesterday and noted MANY cheap, stupid, and racist costumes, however, I also went shopping for a coat and noticed that it’s not just Halloween when people are doing things like “Playing Indian”. Just go to Forever21’s site and search for “Native” or browse through the shawls and the shirts. Urban Outfitters may not be able to use the name, “Navajo” anymore, but stores are still capitalizing on the recent trend of going native.

  • http://feministing.com/members/weaverca/ Carisa

    I love the idea of the campaign!! but i am REALLY uncomfortable with the fact that the Asian woman is the only person not looking at the camera, a subject stance that is used often to show the subjects docile nature. Does anyone else feel similarly? or do other people not read it that way?

    • http://feministing.com/members/mawanji/ Tracy

      First I accidently flagged yoru comment…..that was not supposed to happen.

      I jsut wanted to say that I was taken back by this picture as well. It made me feel uncofotable. It was interresting to find your comment. i wish she would be looking into the camera, showing her strength. Suggesting that she is more then a sterotype…..i think having her NOT look at the camera takes away from the strength of her message.

    • honeybee

      Presumably they didn’t tell her where to look – she did whatever she felt comfortable with. So I’m kind of uncomfortable with telling people they aren’t allowed to have their picture taken the way they want to…

      Besides, surely you don’t think that the way one individual Asian woman chose to be photographed is somehow indicative of Asians as a whole??

    • http://feministing.com/members/funktrout/ Tones

      What is wrong with being a Geisha? Yes, Geishas are a part of japanese culture but that does not mean that people assume all japanese women are Geishas. Are we going to frown upon all cowboy and pilgrim costumes too?

      • http://feministing.com/members/rhyth7/ Jamie

        Nothing’ is wrong with being a geisha or dressing as one for Halloween. The problem is portrayal. The costume in the picture is a mockery, the pose and facial expression is cartoonish. A real geisha is graceful, this one is garish and exaggerated. The costume is nothing but stereotype.

  • http://feministing.com/members/marjorie/ Marjorie

    This awareness campaign is half pleasing me, half making me feel guilty. I am a big fan of Halloween: each year, I create a new costume (and sometimes more than one!). I check many pictures in books and Internet before going to choose items in thrifts shops. I put a lot of attention to my costumes to make them beautiful and attractive (and by attractive, I don’t mean sexy – i mean aesthetics-related). For finding my costumes ideas, I am inspired by many channels: movies, brands… and cultures. Two years ago, I costumed as a geisha, with two kimonos and a DIY wig made with wool thread. This year, I dressed as a mexican painter (Frida Kahlo), and I gathered pieces for my boyfriend to costume as an ‘arabic prince’. Was I offensive?

    I really ask you the question, because just before elaborating the ‘arabic prince’ costume, I saw all those ‘epics (…racist…) costumes’ threads on blogs. I worried I could be offensive to arabic people. But in the same time… Should I avoid any cultural costumes in the future??? For instance, would it be offensive if, as a Canadian, I would wear a traditionnal Polish costume for Halloween?

    (I find traditional costumes always wonderfully beautiful, but I wonder if the only ethical behaviour for foreigners is to look at traditional costumes from far away, like in a museum.) I love to sew, and Halloween is therefore one of my favorite holiday, because I feel this vibe inviting to be more creative than ever.

    So, when are you allowed to wear other culture costumes? Only if you look serious? What if you designed the costume seriously, but go to a party where alcohol is served and you become a little bit drunk?

    I would like to know your mind about all that!

    (P.S: A friend suggested me to add a little monkey (stuffed toy) to the costume of my boyfriend, and I should say I liked the idea…It reminded me those beautiful paintings of ottoman sultans with fruits and animals surrounding them. Am I wrong? )

    • http://feministing.com/members/rhyth7/ Jamie

      I think your friend suggested the monkey so that your boyfriend would look like Aladdin and his pet Abu. I think ethnic costumes are okay if they aren’t exaggerated or play on stereotypes. If the costume is true to traditional clothing and you aren’t talking in a fake accent, it’s respectable. I think most homemade costumes are more thoughtful, but mass-made costumes turn other cultures into cartoons, usually through exaggeration of facial features or through sexiness. Also darkening skin is very offensive.

  • http://feministing.com/members/marjorie/ Marjorie

    (Note: If you want to see all the pictures in a large format, go here: http://reimagineimago.wordpress.com/2011/10/24/culture-not-costume-campaign/ It is even more clear there that those pictures are extreme representations, but my question still remains. :) )

  • http://feministing.com/members/kate12303/ Kate

    I know this post is a few days old, but I wanted to comment because I tried explaining this campaign to a friend at a Halloween party this weekend. We are both white and were not dressed in offensive costumes. I was Marvin the Martian (homemade, not store-bought “sexy” Marvin) and she was wearing a 70’s style dress. So when the topic came up, I figured we could actually have an intelligent discussion about it instead of having one person get defensive over their chosen costume. Specifically, we got to talking about why the store-bought poncho/sombrero costume labeled “Mexican” was offensive. She could not wrap her head around it saying things like “we’re not really making fun of Mexicans”, “People just need to lighten up”, and even “You’re telling me that NO ONE in Mexico dresses like that?” That question really blew my mind. Frankly, I couldn’t understand how someone really could not see my point of view at all (that stereotyping/distorting a culture and using a culture purely for your own entertainment was offensive to that culture). Our conversation ended shortly after she asked me if I was being offensive to martians. I felt like I had been banging my head against a wall, and this from someone who is white and privileged. I cannot imagine what it would be like to be a person of color hearing comments like those made by my friend. I just hope that the creators of this campaign realize that despite the opposition they may face, there are SOME people who are listening, and some is better than none. Hopefully, as time goes on, some becomes more.