Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Memoirs of the Racially Insensitive

Today, over at BloggingBaby, there was a post about dressing up as a geisha for Halloween. The author of the post, Heather Craven, writes "if I get a wild bug and decide to dress up this year, I think I will definitely be a geisha. This costume offers glamor and comfort in one easy stop."

Also, she continues to say, "Incidentally, I am not alone in my admiration of the geisha costume. It is quite popular this year, Perhaps it is due to the movie, 'Memoirs of a Geisha'."

Now, a quick look at Ms. Craven's bio tells me that she is white and lives in the Colorado mountains. I assume there aren't too many minorities living up there in the mountains, Ms. Craven?

As I said in her comments...

"Would you get dressed up in blackface as well? Or go to a Halloween party as Aunt Jemima? Put on a minstrel outfit? No? Then, why would you ever dress up as a geisha? Is it really possible that you don't see how that could be offensive? I'm extremely disappointed in you, Blogging Baby. I hope you have the decency to publish my comment. I hope that you have the decency to apologize. But most importantly, I hope you see how you're playing into and reenforcing racial stereotypes that most minorities don't find amusing."

Now, I'm not saying that Ms. Craven is a racist. I'm sure she's a very lovely woman in real life.

And this isn't about political correctness. Fuck political correctness.

The thing that amazes me about the entire post is that it's painfully clear that, at no point, does Ms. Craven even have an inkling of an idea that some people might possibly be offended by seeing a white woman dressed as a geisha. As you can tell from reading her post, the thought clearly never even entered her mind!!!

To make matters worse? Check out the unbelievable link that Ms. Craven includes in her post! Are you fucking kidding me? Could those costumes be any more stereotypical or offensive?

Again, I don't think Ms. Craven is a complete bigot or a card-carrying member of the K.K.K. However, I think her ignorance and insensitivity say something very interesting about race in America.

What do you think? Offended or not?


Anonymous said...

Super Nanny is getting dressed as a geisha this year, too. And I asked her basically the same thing! (*Interestingly enough though, I didn't get all rowlled up about it until she mentioned she wanted to dress in a hambok.)

I'm dressing as a cat, with a t-shirt that says "pussy" (for all my femi-nazi friends). :-)

Anonymous said...

BloggingBaby is a totally commercialized website--what do you expect from something like that? As for the sexy clothes--again what do you expect? This is from people who dress up like chambermaids and police to get aroused!

thisislarry said...

On the one hand, we bought our chinese- american son a 'chinese' outfit last year for halloween, and he really enjoyed it. Its as close as we get to having a cultural heritage.

on the other hand, a chinese- american boy dressing in a chinese oufit and a not-japanese woman dressing in a geisha outfit exist in totally different contexts.

on the third hand (dont judge), I find french maid outfits exciting, does that mean I'm racially insensitive about the french?

on the fouth hand (i can have four if I want), one of my favorite tee shirts when I was younger read "nobody knows I'm gay" which, added to my suburban sense of irony was really funny (tho not so much to Mrs. thisislarry). So, if the geisha outfit was somehow being used in the spirit of snarky irony, it would be automatically OK, right?

Anonymous said...

I think it would be safe to say that Mrs. Craven probably doesn't have any friends who are minorities. While I think that she probably didn't mean to be racist, you're right. It's clear that she never even considered the possibility that someone might be offended. Shocking? Shouldn't be.

Robyn said...

I'm a grad student in a department that is really amazing when it comes to race issues. And yet, at last year's Halloween party, there was a woman (white as far as I could tell) wearing a grass skirt and lei last year. I'm not really sure who she was. Maybe in another department or a friend of the host? But... the host is like Native American and like... one of the reasons our program is amazing about race stuff. So... I don't know. I tried to just ignore it.

Puka said...

The thought doesn't ruffle my fur, but I do cringe when I see geisha costumes on the 'Net or hear people talking about dressing up as one. When the Mister and I went to Japan a couple of years ago, the Mister's department secretary asked us to buy her granddaughter a kimono, getta, hair pieces, and any other stereotypical accessories so her granddaughter could play dress up. I was not pleased about that either, but instead of letting me tell her what I thought about that request, the Mister asked me to just do it and not be a troublemaker.

Anonymous said...

On the other hand..we could all just do as the European immigrants to the U.S. did in the late 1800s and early 1900s which was to assimilate as quickly as possible and lose touch with all of their ties to the old country and their former cultures and customs. Hmmmm...

mamazilla said...

if you think THAT'S offensive... check these geisha related links out:

"take a break from the massage parlor..." with this geisha costume from spirit halloween - http://www.spirithalloween.com/index.cfm/fuseaction/products.detail/categoryID/0e0ebeff-4505-4a50-9c0a-9986dd11a345/productID/b800be63-9b72-49ce-a85a-2f4ff846eeba/"

the restaurant owned by ashton kutcher and wilmer valderama, where they "embrace japan's rich sexual history" and claim their goal is to make you climax - http://geishahousehollywood.com/aboutus.htm


Kristen said...

Um. It's one thing to dress up wearing the authentic costuming of the country - kimono, etc... - but to go as a "geisha"

meh. Bad taste.

I feel the same way about Native American gear as well.

We stick to animals. Seems fairly safe.

Michelle said...

Well, some of the costumes in themselves don't seem offensive (haven't you heard? kimono sleeves are so in this season), but the descriptions are repulsive.
Check this one out: "Geisha - Ready to server her master"
But do you think these costumes are worse than, say,
hillbillies, indians, thugs, prisoners or even pirates?
Just wondering.

Didi said...

It's not only racist, it's clueless.

On a parenting board I post on there was recently a thread about a little boy wanting to dress up as a cowboy for Halloween. Everything was all fine and dandy until one woman (white, of course) said something along the lines of letting her kid dress up like a cowboy and pretend to shoot "injuns" - and then she had the nerve to get pissed when people called her on her racism.

These are the same people who think that sports teams called things like "Redskins" are honoring Native Americans.

Ka_Jun said...

Man, I HATE Halloween. Kung Fool, some white folks going as Daniel-san and looking for an APIA to accompany them to a party as "Mr. Miyagi", a white staff member at Carnegie Mellon University dressing up as a "Chinese Opera singer"...when will the racist madness end?!?!

Marcie said...

I think comparing it to blackface is going over board. Blackface was done with the intent to make fun of and degrade black people and add to that the history of 300 years of slavery, torture and brutality at the hands of white people.
I think she wants to be a Geisha because they are pretty. Big difference.
That being said I am so bored with "I'm going to be a "sexy blank" (add animal or profession).
Why not be ugly on Halloween, I think that's the point anyway.
And as for a politically correct list of appropriate Halloween costumes, once everyone was done putting their two cents in it would be a pretty short list.

Ka_Jun said...

On another note, check out the retraction. Nice job, MetroDad.


Posted Oct 3rd 2006 1:30PM by Heather Craven
Filed under: Moms, Outings

EDITED to add:

I deeply apologize for any offense that I may have caused by my post. It was not meant in any hurtful way.

I am deeply sensitive to racial and cultural issues, and truly did not know that the content of my post could be problematic. My intent was to present an option to mothers who could dress up in something comfortable for Halloween. Please accept my heartfelt apology.


daddy in a strange land said...

Looks like commenting is off on the Blogging Baby Post--guess it was disabled after the writer took down the original text and replaced it with the apology that Ka Jun reprinted here. And I think that some of the comments there underscore what MD was trying to get at--that some people don't think about this stuff at all, because they are privileged not to have to.

The geisha Halloween costume, and others like it, represent the sexist and racist stereotype of the sexualized, "exotic" "other." Costumes for something like Halloween are by their very nature stereotypes--images meant to evoke iconic meaning without explanation. As I used to explain to my students, the notion of "stereotype" by itself is not automatically "bad"--you have a stereotype of a chair so you don't have to relearn how to use one every time you encounter one. It's when stereotypes are applied to people, and differential power relations come into play, that we get into trouble.

Who gets to decide that a "traditional costume" from a "foreign culture" gets to be turned into a make-believe dress-up item? What are you really pretending (to be) when you put it on? Someone made the specious comparison to dressing up as a farmer on the BB post in an attempt to discredit MD, saying that he wasn't being disrespectful by wearing overalls b/c some farmers do, so same thing here and get a life--however, you know, if he was drawing on classist stereotypes of poor "hick" or "redneck" farmers, that's a problem too.

But the thing is that "dressing up" as a member of a racialized group--and that is what you're doing when you were such a costume, even if you don't realize it--is problematic and rife with power issues. Doesn't matter if you "don't mean it that way" or are "trying to be flattering." And let's not get into comparing oppressions here either--it's all interconnected. Blackface minstrelsy, we can agree is offensive and racist--but ask practictioners back in the day, and many would claim that they were doing so out of admiration and love for black culture. Appropriation by any other name...

Anyway, I'm rambling, and I'd like to close by asking folks to forward me stuff when they see race being mis-talked about, or ignored altogether (or good stuff too, I guess) on parenting boards and sites (for another project). Thanks!


Angela said...

Last year a classmate of my daughter's was dressed up like a Chinese girl, complete with wig, but this really threw me, her eyelids were taped up to give her eyes an "Asian" look, I was literally speechless and shocked when she announced that she was a "Chinese girl"-I know her parents (they are rather weird) but her Mom is a teacher and I think should know better. I didn't know what to do, I didn't say anything to the parents, my husband said to "just let it go, they don't know any better", I felt that I should have said something to them just so they knew that I found it offensive and in very bad taste, sigh...I kick myself for not saying anything.

MetroDad said...

Part of what's interesting to me about this whole debate is that somehow, in America, we've come to understand that racial stereotyping when it comes to Blacks, Latinos, or Native Americans is not in good taste. However, when it comes to the non-Western world, people don't seem to make the distinction.

Many of my Asian-American female friends often tell me that they are constantly dealing with stereotypes of them being passive, timid, and docile sex objects. They'll get their asses grabbed on the train and when they chew out the offender, it's clear that the men are surprised to hear the women speak English!

I think the geisha costumes only serve to reinforce that stereotype.

Look, I'm a fairly laid back guy. You want to dress as a Native American princess? Or as a Nazi? Or a geisha? Go for it.

However, at least be sensitive enough to realize that there ARE people who will be greatly offended by it. Heather’s bloggingbaby post revealed that she hadn’t actually ever thought about this possibility at all. Doesn't that say something about race in America?

Because yeah, I got a problem with that.

Marcie said...

Asian women aren't the only ones that have to worry about being stereotyped as sex objects. All women have to deal with that crap. That's why I said I'm tired of the sexy costumes. If you are a woman of any color you don't have the privilege of not thinking about stereotypes (as Daddy in a strange land said).

Lori said...

If I had to guess, I'd figure that she simply doesn't think that Asian-American parents are even reading Blogging Baby...and, as you say, not because she's some kind of full-blown racist or something, but because we white folks (and, yep, that's me, too) tend to assume that, unless it's specifically stated somewhere, the Internet is White. We post - apparently - for our own consumption, and when we dress up the world is - as in the Days of Imperial Yore - still our oyster.

I saw a bunch of those costumes over at Target the other day, and I definitely had an over-my-dead-body moment...

Mama Nabi said...

It irks me that the whole geisha culture is romanticized by so many... I didn't see the movie but I have to assume it didn't help...?

Being a minority and consistently subjected to certain racial/ethnic stereotypes (oooh, Asian woman - let's compare her to a geisha!) vs. not being a minority do have subtle differences as far as what one finds offensive. Why were people so offended about a certain British royal wearing a Nazi uniform? Hm? Would people be offended if I dressed up as a Hasidic Jew for Halloween? I'll bet some Jewish people would be - not because anything is wrong with being a Hasid but the fact that I'd have to adopt a caricature-like stereotypical appearance to make it a "costume".

Geishas, whether factual or not, have long symbolized this icky sexual fantasy many non-Asian men have about Asian women - I cringe every time I'm compared to a geisha... I'd cringe if anyone suggested that LN dress up as a geisha - I may even slap the person. Of course, taken out of the context of the Western ignorance of geishas, it wouldn't be so offensive. Wikipedia has a pretty good page on geishas and how it's been falsely deemed a sexual profession by the Western culture.

I think there's a sensitivity that exists for racial offenses regarding African-Americans but not for Asian-Americans. I hope we are starting to change that...
(And yes, I am aware of my not-too-linear stream of thoughts... apologies.)

Puka said...

After I made my initial comment, I had other things I should have said. Now I see that DIASL and Mama Nabi have already voiced them. It's not so much the costume, but it's what the costume invokes. AA females are thought of as sexual beings, are often some sicko's fetish, fantasy. Plus, most of the US only knows, and therefore thinks is fact, a story that a HAOLE man wrote and is a work of fiction on top of that. Add to it that geishas are not what the typical American thinks, be it haole, black, green purple.

Ka_Jun said...

What I find interesting is that some APIA parents, or parents who have married APIA don't see this as being problematic, or even potentially problematic.


Oh, and just for the record, Latinos and African Americans get their respective licks during Halloween, too. Check it.



I can't find the African American one, but it was similar to Vato Loco, I think it was meant to portray a mugger or similar thug. Hooray for one day of the year where we can unleash our not so hidden bigotry! Man, I hope when my boy is big enough, he won't have to put up with some kid telling him, "Man, you know what, you would make a GREAT Short Round, you should really get a costume! Here, say it, 'No time fo' luv, Docta Jones!'" Yeesh.

Didi said...

It irks me that the whole geisha culture is romanticized by so many... I didn't see the movie but I have to assume it didn't help...?

Actually, both the book and the movie showed how UNglamorous being a geisha was, if one were actually paying attention at something other than the pretty clothes.

Of course, the ending of the movie was totally different from the book, and completely fed into the Happy Ending stereotype. Guess American audiences didn't want to deal with the reality that most men who consorted with geisha were already married and had families.

thisislarry said...

I dont know if I like the flipside: where one cannot express ANY interest in races other than their own, in fear of stepping on toes or appearing racist. I mean, doesn't a person from race A dressing up as race B automatically set off racist alarms?

So, what do we do? Its absurd (and racist!) to think we that should just each celebrate just our own races, but isnt this the logical conclusion?

I mean, Halloween is all about pretending. What halloween costume doesnt come with emotional baggage?

Ten Feet of Steel said...

The problem with the "geisha" costumes--which I put in quotes because if they were actually costumes for people who wanted to dress up as geisha, they might be more accurate than that bunch of half-assed conflations of vaguely "Oriental" trash--is that the geisha in the Western imagination is a cariacature that has nothing to do with real geisha. The same way Aunt Jemima has nothing to do with black housemaids.

So I DO think the analogy to blackface holds up. Aunt Jemima and other "pliant negro" characters are cariacatures designed to perpetuate a fantasy in which blacks are happy to be subordinates and want to care for white folks. The geisha is a colonial (or as close to is as matters) cariacature designed to project the "Orient" as docile, effeminate, and available (sexually and otherwise) and whites as superior and entitled.

THAT's the geisha that mainstream culture is putting on with these kinds of outfits, not actual geisha. Dressing up as a "sexy geisha" in that sense is really no more tasteful than dressing up as a hooker, except that the geisha adds racist insult to the boorishness.

However I may feel about actual geisha, I've heard that they are known in Japan for their exquisite mastery of very difficult traditional arts, and their attire is not designed to provide cheap thrills but rather to showcase the works of master traditional artisans. I really don't see any of these costumes even remotely referring to these qualities.

The geisha costume is also NOT analagous to a French maid costume, as people don't actually associate French maids with real life French women (maybe because French women haven't been economically and culturally disadvantaged enough to have to work as chamber maids since, oh...since the time when Westerners actually had chamber maids), whereas the stereotypes of the geisha-like Asian woman are alive and well today in the West. Ask any reasonably aware Asian or AA woman who has been around North America and Europe and I'm sure she will have at least one story of an encounter with someone who expected her to show geisha-like traits.

Oh, and let's not forget to mention that there are still many women in developing Asian nations who continue to be forced to cater to the sexual desires of men from more economically advantaged countries, many of them in North America and Europe, for their survival, so trivializing Asian women's sexual servitude with fantasies like the "geisha" is a bit in poor taste, isn't it?

la dra said...

Learning about the histories and culture of actual people you know while crossing boundaries of race and class equals "expressing an interest in other races". Dressing up as a stereotype does not. Assimilating a white privilege point of view where "race doesn't matter" ignores the very real power inequalties and systems of disempowerment that still exist.

daddy in a strange land said...

Wow. TenFeetOfSteel and (my brilliant spouse) la dra. said exactly what I wished I would've said, except, you know me, Mr. Rambly...

Larry, dude, I love ya, but gotta disagree on this one. Dressing up as a generic character that is the locus of racial/gender/class stereotypes, in a culture that endorses said stereotypes of non-normative-group members, is not the same thing as dressing up as a non-raced occupation or even a specific character who happens to be specifically raced. Go back to Ka_Jun's comment and follow the link to the BabyCenter "Asian American" board, where he posted MD's original post for comment. Lots of "I'm Asian and I don't think that so you're wrong" or "I'm married to an Asian and..." or "my kids are Asian or mixed so..." coupled with "My kid's gonna be Mulan or Pocahontas" (which, btw, they couldn't spell) "what's wrong with that?"

It's a specious and reductive argument for someone who doesn't agree with my stand on this to spit back something like, "What, then, are you saying my kid can't be Dora 'cause she's Latina and my kid isn't? Well, you're the racist then."


Is dressing up as the mainstream media's generic representation of of a racialized stereotype really evidence of genuine desire to learn about another culture, or is it just, well, hey, I dressed like a ____ so I'm open, I'm not racist... Look again at Ka_Jun's link, folks all "why are you insulted if people equate Asian women with sexy and want to dress as one? we're not, so you shouldn't be..."

Obviously there are folks more coherent over here to say what I mean, so I'll leave you with this link I just got from an email from the Teaching Tolerance Project of Tolerance.org, the on-line resource of the Southern Poverty Law Center, an awesome resource for parents, teachers, everyone--it's a lesson plan on this issue!


And also, Ka_Jun linked to this Pacific Citizen article on BabyCenter, don't think he replicated it here, so check this out:


thisislarry said...

DISL, thanks for the links. the 2nd one i couldnt get to work....

I was thinking: If the original wish had been to 'dress in a kimono for halloween' versus 'dress like a geisha for halloween' then it would have been much less charged.

I see that the 'geisha' element adds a negative stereotype to what otherwise might be a respectful or whimsical costume.

I agree with 10Ft that 'geisha' and 'french maid' have much different levels of cultural and stereotype baggage today. (thank goodness)

But, Dora? Oh, dont get me started on Dora..... (why does she have a monkey working for her? does Boots ever get paid? what do those boots represent, in freudian terms? Why does she capture stars? Why does she keep Map holed up inside Backpack? Why is Map so neurotic? What is he being so passive- aggressive about?)

Henri said...

Wow, this is such a tricky topic. If a non-Korean man chose to be Kim Jong-Il and did a damn good job of it...like cut off a few inches of femur and through make-up actually was physically identical to Kim Jong-Il and then walked up to me at a party where I was NOT dressed up as a Ninja (please stop asking me that), I would look at him and then start laughing my ass off. Just the truth...I find that funny.

Now while I'm laughing....if I asked him how he came up with such a great Kim Jong-Il constume and he responds "Kim Jong-who? I'm dressed as a Korean guy." Then the needle would skip in the perpetual soundtrack in my mind and I would think...hmmm I'm going to have to hit this guy. Now hitting people for what they wear, this is also not cool I know....

Now here's the rub. Kim Jong-Il is a mean ass son-of-a-bitch and just dressing as him is offensive enough I know, and monster that I am I would still laugh because it's a Holloween costume. If you look exactly like him...I'm laughing. Now if I realize that out of ignorance you are actually dressing as a Korean guy and you think that Korean guys all have big fro's, chinky eyes, big glasses, kick-ass leisure suits, and are very short, now I'm offended.

The question that I am asking myself is why? There is a line there somewhere. Every costume is a characterization. The characterization of a man vs. the characterization of a people that's a fine line.

OK which Kim Jong-Il is worse?

A white guy vs a Chinese guy
A latino guy vs. a white guy?
A really good costume or a crappy costume.
Chinky eyes or no chinky eyes.

If I were to draw a cartoon of Kim Jong-Il I'd give that motherfucker some chinky-ass eyes. I'd also give him a BIG-ass fro. Is that offensive to the people of Korea? Or is that offensive only to the Kimster.

Just typing Chinky is offensive. Does it matter that I'm Korean? Can I type Chinky?

Ok let's say I'm at Disneyland and I'm getting one of those cartoon thingy's and lets say I have some tight-ass eyes and let's say the cartoonist is white and he's drawing me and he gives me some tight-ass eyes is that wrong? I mean if I had some big-ass teeth and he gave me some big-ass teeth is that wrong? What if I said buck-teeth?

It is offensive to characterize a group of people. Here are some examples:

Trojans/USC students
Indians/any type
Old people
the poor
Autobots or Decepticons
Any character from the film Gymkata
the KKK
Stormtroopers/German or Lucasian

It's all offensive. I think the question lies in how offended shall we be? Hmmm there's a lot of variability here. Personally, I don't get too offended because I feel I am a bit offensive myself. I laugh and laugh and then I punch you in the mouth and I really don't know where that line really is...its more of a gestalt for me. I don't feel that any reaction is an over or underreaction. It's a personal reaction to a group's characterization, who can say what is enough? The only thing that is certain is that being ignorant to the offensiveness of these characterizations is pretty silly. It is offensive period. But that doesn't mean you can't be offensive...just don't be stupid and think you're not stepping on any groups proverbial toes. And if you get attacked by a bunch of pissed off Decepticons...then hey, you play with a bull, you get the horns which can transform into like a teapot or Pontiac Fiero or something. Que sera sera.

daddy in a strange land said...

As on any blog, we play fast and loose with the serious/funny line here. But let me just proffer this:

Talking just in terms of "taking offense" masks the issues at work here. If it's just about "taking offense" or "being offended," then it's just a personal thing, an interpersonal thing, an individual thing.

And due respect to those who sling sarcasm and irony better than I can ('cause that's needed too), I just can't pretend that racism is only about personal feelings and individual interactions. Lots of folks would like to think so, to think that the bad old days of the Civil Rights Movements were the last time anybody saw anything we could call Institutional or Systemic or Systematic, but y'know?

That'd be a bigger trick than anything any kids on my block, dressed as whatever, are gonna pull this Halloween.

superha said...

Good thing BB offered an apology, but when will society finally get over the sensual Asian/dragon lady/geisha girl fantasy? Not all of us "exotic". Some of us are just the girl next door. Enough already!

Henri said...

"And due respect to those who sling sarcasm and irony better than I can ('cause that's needed too), I just can't pretend that racism is only about personal feelings and individual interactions."

Whoa...are you talking about me? Am I a Sarcasm slinger? If there's one thing I learned from Sam-Wan-thankyou-ma'am is the fact that I as an Asian-American person, in my ongoing existence with racism in our society, will react and be affected by it differently from my fellow Asian-Americans. This does not mean, nor did I ever intend to insinuate, that racism itself is only about individual responses.

The offensiveness of these costumes are not in question here. They are offensive period. But part of the reason why there is such active discourse on the matter is the fact that people faced with issues of racism in America will respond differently.

I am still trying to ask important questions here. If ignorance and lack of malintent are not valid excuses for stereotypical portrayals or racist actions then how does the ethnicity of the offender play a role in our response as targets of these portrayals.

Is it ok for a Korean girl to dress as a "Geisha"?

Is it ok for a Japanese woman to wear a Hambok on Holloween?

Is it ok for a German guy to dress up as Bruce Lee?

Is it ok for a Japanese girl to wear a Kimono on Holloween?

Is it OK for members of any ethnicity to portray Asian-American Fathers as Rice Daddies?

If ignorance or lack of malintent is no excuse for perpetuating racial stereotypes in our society then why are we called Rice Daddies?

If we are free to put forward these stereotypes because we are members of the targeted group, then are other minorities free to offend other minorities simply because they are not the direct benificiary of systemic inequality?

All I'm trying to say is that for me personally, having a group of proud socially aware (minus me of course) Asian-American Fathers being labeled as Rice Daddies is equally as offensive as some of these costumes. And that is why I propose that from now on we call ourselves Nippaz With Attitude.

Poppa Large said...

So...I'm wading in a little late into this conversation but I must say - with all due respect to my fellow Rice Daddies and others who've taken the time to post thoughtful comments on this subject...

...I really feel like that people are missing the point about costumes, about masks, about the idea of masquerade and dressing up.

Yes - it can and will be offensive. And on a political level, I can understand why people get upset.

At the same time, the whole idea behind a costume is precisely about finding pleasure in the ambiguity of identity. It doesn't matter what kind of mask you decide to wear: a different ethnicity, a different gender, a different sexuality, etc. It's all about the ability to lose oneself in those moments, behind the mask.

Can pleasure be politically problematic? Of course it can. But there is still a distance - however small or large and ever-changing - between living out a fantasy and trying to enact a new material reality based on that fantasy. In other words, stereotypical images of Chinese workers in the 19th century contributed to things like the Chinese Exclusion Act just as minstrel images of Blacks likely played a role in how Jim Crow laws began to crop up post-Reconstruction in the South.

However, a RELATION between images and policy/reality is not the same as suggesting that one automatically leads to another.

More importantly, eliminating the images - or in this case, trying to stymie the fantasy - is not remotely guaranteed to ensure that social justice will prevail.

I'm not accusing anyone of making that conflation but I do think expending this kind of energy and outrage over Halloween costumes is an investment that will never pay off in either political or cultural capital.

To put it another way, I get angry with certain kinds of negative images too but eliminating the image doesn't address the fundamental inequalities that lead me to become angry to begin with. In other words, it's taking the fury out on the sympton but not the cause.

I would hope that parents think about these things when they dress their children up every year. I would hope that those children, once they become older, are aware of these things too. But I also think there needs to be room in our society to allow for fantasy, to allow for play. It's not because such play is "harmless"...but by the same token, I'm not convinced that it's "harmful." Not in the same way other kinds of inequalities (or even more damaging images) are harmful.

If allowing for that freedom means having to put up with some offensive costumes every year? I'm ok with that.

(Then again, ask me again on Nov 1 and maybe I'll be too pissed off to remember my more libetarian perspectives on the matter).

Henri said...

Yay Libertarians! Badnarik was robbed!

Ten Feet of Steel said...

poppa large, I agree with much of what you're saying. However, the original post by MD is not about trying to legally stop people from dressing up as offensive stereotypes or browbeat them until they don't. It seemed more of a critique of the blitheness with which BloggingBaby was promoting an act that is loaded and offensive to many people.

People who claim to want to be conscientious about matters of race and ethnicity, who claim to be committing a wholesame and entirely harmless act by promoting the idea of a geisha costume--these people could use a wake up call. Are we really being this woman's Halloween Grinch? It's not as if her choice is between dressing up in a geisha costume or having a miserable Halloween devoid of all pleasure. (My subconscious really wants to work the Eddie Izzard "Cake or Death?!" riff in here, but it's not quite the right fit.)

And then there are the kinds of people who take umbrage at MD's objections on BloggingBaby. I think it's important to call those people on the hypocrisy of claiming that acts like dressing up in blackface are all for shits and giggles and protected by the Constitution, and those who have a problem with it need to shut up. Free expression and pleasure go both ways. Why is it OK for a person to offend another with his or her actions and derive pleasure from it and not OK for the offended party to express his or her viewpoint right back and take some pleasure in speaking up as well?

I heartily agree with you that freedom means having to hear and see things with which I don't agree. But where does speaking up and objecting mean that I'm impinging on someone else's freedom? In fact, I tend to view it more as exercising my own freedom in response. Bursting this lady's cheery and unconsciously racist bubble does not rob her of a single freedom--her options are the same as before, but now they are differently informed since she exercised her option to listen to MD's criticism.

I also hear you about picking your battles. But I personally believe that the micropolitical actions that people commit in their everyday lives and the social forces that lead to major legislative and policy changes are highly interdependent. Besides, I don't see this little discussion as a "wasted investment" of energy. A quick comment on someone's blog to let them know that they might want to rethink an opinion or behavior that they've never had to examine critically before? I don't think that's wasted energy. A call for discussion of an issue that may be of interest to APAs, to parents, and especially to APA parents on an APA daddy blog? I think that's no less a waste of energy than posting a 153-question superquestionnaire (not a putdown, Henri--I was highly entertained). How many people read BloggingBaby? And now how many people are suddenly aware that dressing up as an ethnic stereotype may not be baggage free? And how much did we get to find out about the various blog contributors and commenters by getting into it here?

And cultural fantasies do have strength and exercise an enormous power over how we interpret the world and how we behave. Stereotypes about Asian women, including the geisha fantasy, are, indeed, harmful. If not on a macropolitical level, then on a micropolitical level. No studies have been done that I know of to provide hard data, but a lot of prominent APA women have asserted that Asian women are disproportionately the victims of sexual harrassment and even sexual assault. I would believe it from what I've observed in the admittedly small sample size of my friends and acquaintances. I'm sure a lot of other Asian women living in North America would report a similar experience.

papa2hapa said...

As a member of the AA and AA Daddy blogosphere, let me profer my feelings on this issue.

I'd take offense if an Asian woman dressed as "geisha" primarily because I'd think she was playing into the stereotype and reinforcing it. In fact, I might find her more ignorant and stupid than a white person doing the same thing. At the same time, I might not know her "intentions." What if her intention is to be completely ironic, and to create dialogue?

I'd think that might be an interesting point, but that Halloween just isn't the time to do that.

Seriously, the problem with Halloween is that it isn't what we think it is. It's a time for remembering and honoring the two lives of spirit world and real world. It isn't a time to dress up like other people and prance around drunk with lots of sugar in your bag.

I don't know, but I'd say anyone who dressed in any racially themed costume is stepping on dangerous ground. And I'd also believe that most people who dress in racially themed garb aren't truly witty enough to understand their act.

For those in Cali, this recalls the incident at USC last year when a Jewish fraternity/sorority party erected a fence and had a "Mexican" border themed party. They then harassed a hispanic student passing by, and then said they didn't know that it would be offensive.

Another incident occurred at my alma mater UF, where a fraternity/sorority themed party was GIs and Vietnamese prostitutes.

Another one has happened at Harvard, Yale, Penn State, Dartmouth, and even other prestigious big Us.

Want to know the most common response from the people involved? "We didn't realize....[the party] was conceived with harmless intentions."

This is what bothers me. People don't "intend" to hurt, but they do. And they don't always realize that what their so-called harmless intentions reveal is their racial insensitivity.

Take Mrs. Craven's response. "It was not meant in any hurtful way. I am deeply sensitive to racial and cultural issues..."

If she was so sensitive to them, then she wouldn't have posted it in the first place. But, at the same time I applaud her recognizing her slip in logic, and her apology for her slip in sensitivity.

I think what rubs me the wrong way about most of this is that there are clear things most of us would not dress up as. I wouldn't dress up in my hanbok for Halloween because how is that a "costume"? It's traditional dress. The same goes for a Japanese girl wearing a kimono. That's just not original or creative.

I don't go dressed up as "po white trash" or "trailer trash" because that would be equally insensitive.

I also wouldn't go dressed up as a prostitute, because that's also insensitive.

So why should anyone go dressed as a geisha?

The Newbie Dad said...

I remember seeing the original bloggingbaby article prior MetroDad's comment. My initial reaction was pretty ambivalent, though I still felt something was a bit off about it. After reading MD's and everyone else's comments, I now have a better grasp of what I was feeling, but couldn't quite articulate. I think I've become desensitized to a lot of issues that I once was very passionate and vocal about. Thanks to everyone for reminding me to be more aware and sensitive to this issue. Not just for the benefit of us Asian-Americans, but for ALL races and ethnicities.

With that said, I think I'm dressing up as a fuzzy logic rice cooker for Halloween. Emphasis on the fuzzy. :)

Poppa Large said...

I don't think protesting negative images is a waste of time since that would suggest it’s a meaningless gesture. I don’t believe that.

I do, however, think it's a mismanagement of limited emotional, intellectual and political energy. That doesn't mean it's not worthwhile but it does raise the question of why it seems that our (APA) community spends more time caught up in protesting stereotypes than it does involved in other realms of political action (whether micro or macro).

Just look at this thread: it's generated more posts, more words than any other thread I've seen on our blog. On one hand, this clearly reflects people's passion and I want to respect that but after 15 years of watching APIs invest THE BULK of their energy into fighting stereotypes, I'm impatient to see our community find the same passion for other social justice issues.

And here's the thing - and I know I might be opening a big can o' worms - but I think this is reflective of a political agenda (though that may be too strong a word) born of class privilege.

I think you'd find that the majority of APAs for whom stereotypes spark the most outrage tend to be college educated, middle class Americans of East Asian descent. And as someone belonging to that demographic, I can appreciate why stereotypes are so grating but as my wife pointed out, what is a garment worker going to care about what children are dressing their kids up as for Halloween? Would they mind sewing the kimono costumes if it meant they could earn a living wage doing it?

I'm not saying this to shut down conversation but at the same time that I can concur, "yes, this is important," on the grand scheme of importance, how actually important is any of this apart from the satisfaction (and I do agree, it is satisfying) to be able to call people on their ignorance?

To put it another way, if 1,000 white girls (or their parents) traded in their geisha outfits for Joan of Arc costumes instead, what will we have gained? How would that impact the life of my daughter on the other 364 days a year? How would it impact the lives of all the other daughters for whom even having a Halloween costume – of any sort – would be a luxury rather than an expectation?

This was my point about noting that stereotypes - damaging as they are - mirror deeper inequalities. While it's important we understand the power of these images, in the economy of power, they're an effect, not cause. Making people more racially aware is incredibly important but awareness alone, without also moving people towards confronting inequality means that it’s just a waiting game until the next set of images arise that need batting down again.

Poppa Large said...

Just as an aside but as someone who recently gave a lecture on minstrelsy, I think people are simplifying the practice a bit much. I'd highly recommend people read Eric Lott's "Love and Theft" in order to understand that racial masquerade is far more complex an act than simply being about perpetuating racism (even though, certainly, that was part of its effects).

In understanding that minstrely's roots - and enduring legacy and appeal - lies within a mix of desire, fear, anxiety and curiousity is not to divorce the act from the oppressive conditions that gave rise to its appeal. It does, however, require us to suspend a simple "it's good/it's bad" perspective on it and instead, push us to understand what's going on beneath the cork, so to say.

As with debating costumes, the most interesting part of it is less the act/performance itself but rather, unpacking the DESIRE to wear the mask.

Poppa Large said...

Lastly, directly to 10 Footer:

I don't think you and I actually disagree on the fundamentals of our political beliefs though I do think you read far more into my original comments than were actually there.

For example, my "libertarian" argument (and I use that term very loosely in any case) had no legal implications there at all. Nowhere do I even imply that criticizing someone for their racism is akin to cutting off their civil right to free speech.

My point, then and now, was that I think people are missing the point of what masquerades are about. They solely seem to want to focus on the negative potential but don't also weigh how the ambiguity of identity is actually something that we, as people of color or women or whoever, strive towards and as such, we have to also accept that it may come with shortcomings (i.e. dumb ass racists). That's the price of living anti-essentialist (however strategically).

After all, how does one even pass judgement on A COSTUME, an object whose whole point is to muddle meaning, open things up for play? We can't always presume to know the intent behind a costume and ultimately, I think these kind of value judgements say far more about the person doing the judging than it ever could about what the person under the mask is thinking. (In other words, it's called "projecting").

Also, not to call Papa2Hapa out but I'm pretty sure, at this point, we (as Americans writ large) have managed to pervert the meaning of every single holiday on our calender away from its original meaning (see Xmas for one of the grandest examples of all). However, just because they deviate from tradition doesn't mean they can't be enjoyable or worth celebrating.

papa2hapa said...

I agree with PoppaLarge that nearly all our holidays have been co-opted and perverted into representations beyond their original intent. However, I do want to make clear I didn't imply that it wasn't worthwhile, or even fun, to dress up for Halloween. I've gone and dressed up for costume parties nearly every year.

I'd like to echo PL's other comments on the DESIRE to dress up in costume. What is interesting is that this whole discussion reminded me of "Bamboozled" by Spike Lee.

Although I don't know if I'd call it a great film, it was a strong discussion on the hidden motives and desires to dress up in minstrel costume.

But, the problem I have here is that the motive behind most costume and theme parties is not to pay homage, nor to open discussion about PC or any other touchy subject, it is to portray your own perception of what that particular costume represents. In doing so, most (hasty generalization) people reveal their blindness and ignorance, rather than their cultural saavy.

I'd also say that I agree with PL's assertion that class and education play a huge role in our ability to think this out. Look at the quality of logic and writing portrayed on this thread and this blog in general.

How can we translate this into something larger and more meaningful?

Ka_Jun said...

Woo! Ten Feet of Steel *clapping & whistling* Micropolitical actions, awesome. Every act is a potentially political act, hell, breastfeeding in public is a political act.

While I agree that the APIA community needs to mobilize on multiple issues, I won't bag on anyone taking the initiative to do a one-on-one, micropolitical act because if you have enough APIA parents initiating dialogue, asking the hard questions, how could that not subsequently benefit any larger scale macropolitical action?

la dra said...

Speaking of political action, ELECTION DAY is less than a month a way. PLEASE learn about the measures and candidates and VOTE.

Sugarbread said...

Those kung fu shoes gave me a major hard-on.

Henri said...

Not trying to be an asshole here (already am) and I really enjoy this discussion a lot especially considering I am neither politically nor micropolitically active...more um micropersonally belligerent but I wanted to point out that racial consciousness is a very slippery slope.

While many are tempted to judge that yakoo lady for being ignorant of the perpetuation of racial stereotypes I am sitting in a forum called Rice Daddies with some guy who has the extrememly offensive term Hapa in his name, numerous blogs with racially loaded images on them, all under the banner of ethnic ownership.

I'm going to bring this up again because I do know a few polically minded Asian-Americans who find the title of this Blog offensive (Go Cal!). Does ethnic ownership grant the right to perpetuate racial stereotypes? I'm just asking this because for those of you that say yes, for those of you that have no problem with the names Rice Daddies, Yolk, Papa2Hapa and NinjaDad, I'm going to call you ignorant and offensive. If we're going to become racially conscious here, I'd like to point out the minority view that ethnic ownership of stereotypes not an excuse for their perpetuation in our society.

Hapa Haole is offensive
Yolk is offensive
Rice Daddies is offensive
NinjaDad is offensive and not very funny.
The terms Black and White to describe people are unbelievably derogatory.
Asian-American is derogatory as is European and African-American

Now many of you will think what the hell is this fool talking about? But remember...ignorance is not an excuse. In 1984 I had to learn than Oriental was a derogatory term. It had to be taught to me. And if 20 years from now it becomes a term as acceptable as Hapa is today, I will not unlearn the fact that it is derogatory.

Some Vegans consider some vegetarians to be ignorant of the issues facing vegetarianism. Some vegetarians think pescatarians are retarded.

Environmentalist absolutely hate me. And I prefer to label them as Conservationalists.

I just want to say that I accept the fact that I am a flawed ignorant racist short ugly chinky mofo, and I am offensive knowingly. But it is hard for me to sit in a room like this, with no fooseball, no pool table, no damn videogames, and listen to a really great conversation about Racial Consciousness in America without continually glancing up at the sign above our heads in big neon letters that says "Rice Daddies" I love that sign by the way, and I chuckle constantly but that's because I am offensive or the more PC term...cheeky.

We are all ignorant and offensive no matter how outraged we are about some lady wearing a Geisha costume. A wise man once said "Nobody's better than anybody. Especially Henri"

Thanks Dad. Love you.

Henri said...

Damn accidentally posted without spell checking. Sorry. umm...not that that's ever stopped me before.

NinjaDad said...

Problem solved:


You're Welcome.

Emily of RedWhineandBoo said...

I am a white girl from small town Oregon, and even I was offended by her post. Thanks for calling her on her shit MD.

Anonymous said...

i'm a native american doctor living on the east coast, and i dress up as a white man everyday--suit and tie. who cares? let the fool dress up as a geisha with the backpack and shamrock hair.

Poppa Large said...

This has gone rather surreal.

Henri said...

Dear Dr. Indigenous North American or as I prefer Beringial-American,

Ummm that shamrock hair comment...that's a little disparaging towards the Irish.

papa2hapa said...


I think you are deliberately stirring the rice bowl here.

If minority ownership of "names" is going to perpetuate the stereotypes about Asians, then so does ownership of all words used to identify other groups of minorities.

Shall we tell the feminists to stop using terms like "bitch" and turning it into an ironic commentary on societal perceptions of what constitues bitchiness?

We should also tell Margaret Cho to stop using terms like "Fag Hag" and to tell other people to stop taking ownership of words like "dyke" and "cunt."

If these terms are becoming more powerful in their meaning because of minority ownership, then what is the problem?

I'm not calling myself "gook" or "slope" or "krinkerbell" (this one my friend made up because he couldn't call me chink). I'm saying, I'm a father to a child who is hapa.

If hapa is offensive, then burn the new photograph book that came out. Go to Hapas.com and tell them all they're racist and ignorant.

I do take most of what you say with a grain of MSG, but I also feel that you are arguing against "Hapa" on a very slippery slope.

Oriental will not come back into our vocabulary as acceptable until Occidental also become acceptable.

We have to have labels. Why? Because not to label is to also completely fool yourself into thinking that you don't see that others are different.

"Hey, did you see the new employee?"

"Which one? The guy who is tall and with dark hair and was wearing the suit?"

"Do you mean the white guy?"

How is that going to be harmful? By avoiding labeling you're really revealing your uneasiness with your ability to differentiate between skin color and the person that is beneath.

As a vegan, I don't find other vegetarians silly. I applaud their effort. As a conservationist, I also find anyone who is remotely willing to recycle and to help out preserving our environment an overall good human being (unless they're meat eaters...then damn them to hell! Burn baby Burn!).

So in many ways I find Henri's logic to be following the same slippery slope fallacy that he claims racism and ethnic ownership to be following. If this is an example of verbal irony, then touchee!

Anonymous said...

I am a Japanese American woman (sixth generation) who arrived at this link accidentally. My first thought was: "What the hell is a Rice Daddie?" Ive read the entire context of this post and even tried to see the original post over on Blogging Babby. I did read some of Mrs. Cravens other blog entries and found her to be entertaining, informed, and perhaps a little verbose, but nothing at all compared to what I found here.

As a Japanese American, by your assertions, Rice Daddie, I should have the go-ahead and ok to use racially offensive language as long as I am referring to people of Asian herritage. Cool. Thats some licence, right there. My incredibly racist grandfatehr who had a particual hatred for Koreans would be happy to know this...

Does it matter that I am slightly offended by the title of this blog? (Although, I am not completely offended. I think it is slightly funny as well.)

I had no idea, as a Japanese American, that a white woman, dressing up as a geisha, should offend me. I guess I am ignorant and uninformed as well.

Which leads me to my next question: Should I allow my 11 year old to dress as a Russian Cossak? He is entered in a contest and has spent long hours and much expense planning and designing his uniform. As a history buff, he wants it to be accurate. It didnt occur to me that there may be russians who would be offended to see a Japanese boy dressed as a Russian soldier. Should I let him go with it?

I read past this thread and enjoyed the content of your site. But this post alone just makes me roll my eyes.

Ten Feet of Steel said...

Poppa Large, I also don't think we fundamentally disagree, except about the value of discussions like this one.

I totally agree that the uproar over stereotypes is too often an easy way out for many APAs who feel they should be active in the public forum but don't want to deal with the "harder" issues and higher effort of direct involvement in the political process.

However, I don't think this invalidates the importance of the activity of "calling society out" on stereotypes.

I think one reason why people on this blog might want to contribute to these kinds of threads and write these kinds of posts instead of initiating discussions about "harder" policy issues is that, in the U.S., those harder policy issues cannot be easily divorced from one's political affiliations--and religion and politics, as we know, are minefields that a daddy blog might not want to tread.

To me, the issue with geisha costumes is less about the outfit itself, though I do think the various opinions about why it may or may not offend were interesting. To me, the question of whether 1,000 white girls trade in their geisha outfits for Joan of Arc costumes is not the important question. The issue for me is 1,000 people who have never had to think critically about their thoughts about Asian people realizing--because someone has spoken up about it--that there might be something to think about there.

Sure, there's a certain privilege implied in being able to see the world the way we are in this discussion. But how much does/should that lessen the value of the discussion?

I really have very little sympathy for uncritical thinkers who are middle- or upper-middle-class soccer parents who think that people from minority groups (even, perhaps, their own) or less privileges classes who disturb their uncritical view of the world are ruining society's fun and tranquility. That serenity is also privilege, of a far more damaging kind, in my opinion.

As for your comments on masquerades and masks--I agree that they are never one-way. They both project and reflect. They are designed to provoke reactions, not just broadcast the wearer's viewpoint. In many theatrical traditions, the wearer is simply a channel for the spirit of the mask. So I think expressing one's reaction to a mask is a completely legitimate response to the wearing of it. And making the wearer and the larger society around him or her aware of what spirit they are channeling when a given mask is worn can also be seen as part of the masquerade experience. Masks are as much about these deeper issues as they are about fun and entertainment.

For the record, I personally believe that dressing up as another ethnicity isn't de facto racist. Nor is initiating the complex cascade of implications and effects that is putting on a "loaded" costume such as one that references minstrelry. But I do think that it's good for society that those who do it are asked to engage in a dialogue about their intentions or purported lack of them. Which is why those people who choose those kinds of costumes either for their kids or to wear around their kids might want to think again if they want their holiday to be pure, unadulterated fun.

Those who claim they don't need to be bothered by the cultural implications of dressing up as another ethnicity--especially as stereotypes of another ethnicity with loaded significance--and who then turn the accusations of racism around on those who object, are highly objectionable to me, but they will exist, and fighting them will neither change their minds or the world. I do believe, however, that it's far from useless to challenge a person's simplistic or unexamined notions of race and racism in the US by speaking up with one's personal APA perspective.

Especially on a forum like a blog, which is a lot about collecting comments from all and sundry. After all, we are part of all and sundry in US society.

Anonymous said...

Well, I'll speak in her defense. I'm a white woman in the Midwest, with barely any minorities around, and I wouldn't have known such an outfit would be offensive.

There is very little diversity around here. The only Asian-Americans I've ever met are a couple of young adopted children.

Thanks for the education.

Anonymous said...

I don't think we should be offended by the geisha costume. Honestly, I take it as a compliment that there are parts of our respective cultures that others find admirable and want to emulate. People dressed as princesses for years and I don't hear anyone making a fuss. If you think an Asian stereotype is sexy, good for you. We are.

It's mocking that should be offensive and I am much more bothered by the 'coolie' costume that comes with a hat and wig.

I do agree that bloggingbaby should have realized that there is a lot of room to be offensive in this case, but if I would find a white woman as sexy as an Asian woman in some of these outfits...and frankly, just as ridiculous in some of the others.

Mad Ethel said...

Maybe we should just cancel all holidays to avoid offending each other.

Anonymous said...

chill out.

gwendomama said...

does this mean that i should not allow my blond children to wear in public their silk 'pajamas' from Chinatown?

Ka_Jun said...

It's not a crime to "not get it", but for examples of the aforementioned, refer to some of the comments above.

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