Halloween costumes have taken on a whole new level of complexity. Some call it political correctness, or over-sensitivity: just lighten up. I admit to being puzzled about where to draw the line. Blackface and sexualization of children via costumes are clearly wrong, but sometimes the mingling of what is racist, what the intent was, and who is wearing the costume creates confusion and misunderstanding. I learn from the insight of others’ hard-earned experience.
My own take is to listen and learn, to do my best to let go of my own stereotypes and biases. I’m a middle-aged white woman who has benefited from white privilege, and who has raised children of color and seen (but not lived) their struggles in a racist world. I’ve had various experiences of being “other:” as the only girl in a classroom of all boys during my high school years, as the only white person in the stands at a middle school basketball game, as a white woman being photographed unasked in Korea because of my blue eyes, as a white American in Ethiopia being asked multiple times in front of my granddaughter if I was adopting her. But those experiences were interesting or annoying, not painful and scarring. I could (and did) walk back into my safe and privileged world, a nice enough place to be.
When our eyes and hearts have been opened by those we love, when we make an intentional effort to let go of stereotypes and biases, when we look through the lenses of those who we admire and respect–well, we see things differently, and that truly is a gift. Unsettling sometimes, not necessarily the gift we wanted, and exactly right.
Imagine an essay by a West Point graduate who served as an engineer in the US army, writing to a friend about a white woman dressed as a geisha for Halloween.
Imagine an essay by a Korean adoptee, who is also an adoptive mom, writing to her friend about the same issue.
Turns out the West Point grad, the US Army veteran, the Korean adoptee, the mom: they are all the same person, Soojung Jo.
“I was nervous as I rehearsed the conversation in my mind. There were so many ways to say it, and most of them felt wrong – overly sensitive, accusing, weak. I knew I had to approach one of my dearest friends with caution, because matters of race always seem to get volatile.
I checked the photo again, just to be sure of my position. One of my closest friends (we’ll call her April) had posted pictures from a Halloween party. In them, April’s husband (we’ll call him Mark) wore my husband’s old Army uniform, with my married name embroidered above the left breast pocket. April wore a silky kimono, a black wig, and her face painted chalky white (she is not Asian). The photo was captioned ‘Geisha? Or mail order bride?'”
Soojung wrote a letter to her friend April that included this:
“…That kind of stereotype supports racism – maybe not racial discrimination, but rather the kind that gets my kids made fun of in school. It would be an insult and hurtful if a kid called one of my kids a ‘geisha girl’ which is the same as calling them sluts or hookers, but with a worse, racial connotation. I’m not angry or complaining, just being honest with you and because we’re friends we owe each other that kind of honesty.”
“The backlash was terrible but predictable. It started with simple disagreement. It escalated to accusations that I was the jerk,that I was accusing April and Mark of racism. I was told it’s ‘people like you’ who take the fun out of Halloween. I questioned myself, was I really being too sensitive? Was I overreacting? Was I throwing the race card, which sensible, mainstream minorities should never, ever throw? Or was I simply asking for acknowledgement from a close friend that something she had done made me feel extremely uncomfortable with the stereotypes it reinforced for both myself and my daughters?”
Read Soojung’s whole powerful and important essay here.