Bebe Taian: About Cultural Appropriation

October 25, 2011

About Cultural Appropriation

With Halloween coming up, I think it's time to talk about cultural appropriation. Especially in relation to costumes you'll be seeing/wearing. It's really important to not be (accidentally, most often) racist. Yes, yes, I know that the point of a costume is all in fun, and no one takes it seriously, and blahblahblahblahblah... but some people do. Your idea of 'fun' does not supersede someone else's right to cultural integrity, ok?

Let me tell a story:

Years ago, I had a thing for textiles. I still do, in fact. Especially Asian textiles, with their bright colours and extensive, often elaborate patterns so unlike those of my Irish/Polish/etc. background. Living in poverty for most of my life, something like fine silk was completely foreign to me, and it was wonderful to not have something so rough and itchy on my skin. I began to collect kimono, and eventually, sari.

I loved sari, with all of their brilliant (often hand-woven or dyed) designs, sparkling embroidery. I bought three of them to wear, completely in love with the idea that for once, I could wear ADULT clothing and that I could adjust it to my size- whatever it happened to be, since my metabolism is wrecked. I researched five or six different ways to tie them, including some that I found were dance-specific, despite their beauty. I ended up choosing a style that was common to a Southern region of India, one that was worn every day by no special group in particular. Since it was so comfortable, I wore it out to a few places. My decorative shoulder pin broke halfway through the day (ugh. Don't buy cheap pins!) but otherwise, I think I did it right. What I didn't think about was cultural context.

I've spent about ten years or so studying various world cultures, some more in-depth than others. Hindu pantheons were never my specialty, so I have only a cursory knowledge. A lovely woman approached me in a store and began telling me about how I reminded her of her deceased mother. She was overjoyed to see someone wearing a sari. I would have loved to get to know her, but really, I had no cultural relation. Did I practice Hindu? Was I a follower of Vishnu or Ganesha? Neither. In some way, I felt I had let her down- and with my outfit as signifier, I could not wear it again until I had properly researched the various cultures in India, and had learned more about Buddhism and Hindu. Unwittingly, I had taken part in cultural appropriation- not because the sari is a costume of a specific religion, but because it signified that I was part of a culture that I had no place in. If I had a background in either religion, or if a parent had brought me up with a sense of native culture, then it would have been appropriate to wear a sari in public.

As you can see, cultural appropriation usually has nothing to do with ill will or malice. It often has to do with a lack of understanding and forethought. Strangely, the sari disappeared shortly after I moved in with my husband. I remember packing it, and taking it out once I had moved in already, but I've never seen it again. Clearly, it was not meant to be mine. When and if I get another, I will make sure that it is handmade, and it will likely be used as a display piece somehow.

Geisha henshin: If you look like this, good!
If you are still reading this, you might be considering dressing up as something relating to Japanese culture. But some warnings:

For example, the whole Asian-girl-geisha costume thing? Unless you are actually out buying real kimono and obi and making a go of authentic henshin, those are pretty racist.


Because the costume fetishizes Asian women, carrying the message that she's not a person, it's an object, and makes no cultural distinctions between any country or people. The slutty Chinese brocade-corseted mime-makeup-ed costume does nothing to improve the image of Asian women as prostitutes and whores for white men, and mocks them all as being an indistinct, lesser "brown race of short people with bad teeth". I have to battle with this image any time I go out in a kimono, and I have the benefit of being white. I can't even imagine what it must be like for an actual Japanese girl to come over here and find herself with every creepy guy fawning over her just because she's "exotic" (read: not a human being; a rare, commodified object) in their eyes. And dressing up as a geisha with her army boyfriend? Let's not even go there. There's a whole history of white imperialism and repression going on, and if you don't know America's history of "involvement" in Japan, you might want to read up on it.

Don't be the "geesha girl" here. Not cool.
Are you dressing up as a samurai? Do you have any background in Japanese martial arts or bushido?  Please be sure to represent them with a sense of reality. As far as I know, samurai were never a repressed group (in fact, samurai were often wealthy), but thanks to their romanticized image in American society, it can be seen as cultural appropriation when not done correctly. "Go Rin no Sho" (The Book of Five Rings) is probably a go-to book for this kind of cosplay/costume; it's a famous work by Miyamoto Musashi on the subject of bushido.

Things like cosplay costumes should be alright, I think, since most characters are easily recognizable from the anime they come from, but remember that anime =/= real life. For the most part, the Japanese live in a homogenous society. They often do not have a real sense of hundreds of years of slavery of other races, or understand that what they see on imported TV shows are often exaggerated, racist characters instead of who people actually are. Last time I was there, the whole rap/"being black" thing was HUGE- even in Sony music store, the section for rap, hip-hop, and R+B was called "Black Music". There was no sense of why each of those types of expression were individual, distinct, or why the early years of each were so groundbreaking. It was just "cool black music" because being black and imitating music videos was "in". For that reason, occasionally you come across a show where they will have characters portrayed in an exaggerated, sometimes racist, way. That character is probably not someone you want to cosplay as, no matter what time of year it is.

There are plenty of costumes out there that are NOT racist or culturally appropriative. Going as Kuchisake-onna, a geisha, whatever is fine. But if you're going to do it, do it right: accurately represent what you're dressing up as. A culture is not a costume. You can't "be Japanese" for a costume, but if you know your Shinto background and rituals, going as a miko might not be offensive. You can't be "Native American" for Halloween (there isn't just one Native American/First Nations culture to begin with), but accurately portraying a Seminole woman might not be offensive if you go through the trouble of research, clearing it with someone representing the tribe, and use fabrics and props made by someone in that tribe. Wandering around in face paint and a headdress and calling yourself a squaw is NOT okay. And if someone tells you that your costume is offensive, don't argue, don't make them explain themselves, don't spout off about your expertise, etc. Just apologize, and take it off when you can.

There is a much more concise and better-written series of questions to ask yourself before dressing up here. The important thing to realize after this is that (especially white) people have privileges not afforded to others all over the world, and that some disadvantages (ie, poverty, being female, etc.) are not a "balancing equation" to even it all out. It is our responsibility as a privileged society to use that privilege in such a way that benefits others instead of dehumanizing and diminishing them. Even something so simple as a Halloween costume has a profound effect; it is a reflection of greater attitudes at work. Do you want the reflection of your attitude to say that a geisha is nothing but a cheap, sleazy whore? That all First Nations cultures are the same? That Indian people (from India) are all mystical yoginis promoting divine wisdom in spite of poverty and disease (ie, romanticizing and diminishing the very real problems many Indians face every day)?

Think about what you want to show. This is the one day of the year you get to really bring out that side of yourself!


  1. Thank you for this incredibly thought-provoking post! While I have found certain costumes to be offensive I never thought of all possibilities in this light.


  2. Thank you for being appreciative of other cultures in such a nice, respectful way. It's really nice!!