Eugene Cho

we’re a culture, not a costume?

Let’s be honest.

We love dressing up…or down. And most of us love dressing up in our costumes for Halloween. Heck, we actually spend $310 million dollars/year on costumes…for our pets. Wow.

In total, Americans spend between $6.5 – $6.86 billion dollars on all things Halloween: costumes, candy, and decoration. Wowzers.

The average consumer is projected to spend $26.52 on costumes. The holiday will see Americans spend $1 billion on children’s costumes, up from $840 million last year, and $1.21 billion on adult costumes, up from $990 million last year. Additionally, pet owners will shell out $310 million on costumes for their four-legged friends.

And while I don’t personally go ga-ga over my costumes, I love seeing the creativity at costume parties. But several years ago, the laughing kinda stopped because at nearly every single party (even at church parties), I’d see a costume or two that were either borderline or straight up racist.

Perhaps, you’ve seen them, too. Perhaps, you thought they weren’t a big deal. Perhaps, you thought they were funny. Perhaps, like me, you were offended.

What I try to convey to people is that despite their “best intentions,” these costumes really are not funny. It’s like this: You might think it’s funny, but my slanted Asian eyes are beautiful – not to be mocked.

I recently began seeing these posters as part of a campaign started by students and advisors from Ohio University and I was immensely encouraged by the message and the manners in which in they were trying to convey the message:

“We’re a culture, not a costume.”

While it’s clear to me that it’s offensive and in some situations, racist, the topic is difficult for many to broach for several reasons because the responses fall in one of these categories:

  • “Why do you have to be a party pooper?”
  • “You’re taking the subject too seriously. Relax. It’s a costume party!”
  • “I have ethnic friends and they think it’s funny. They told me that it’s cool and okay.”
  • “You need to get some thicker skin.”
  • “This is your issue…your problem.”

My point is that we never allow the conversation to get deeper because eventually, the attention or responsibility is deflected upon the ‘other’ person.

It’s your issue.

Or perhaps, the best way to diffuse these tense but awkward conversations are to mock it or altogether, change it.

This is why I found a recent CNN article all too familiar about the explosion of memes of the original poster:

Then came the realization that their original message was getting lost in the mockery, she said.

“These people that are putting out characters of vampires, dogs, robots, they don’t have anything better to do with their time?” she said. “It’s silly. We’re talking about actual race, actual people that are actually affected. I guarantee you robots and dogs are not affected by what we’re trying to say.”

The most startling was an image of a monkey holding a picture of the black student featured in the original poster, she said.

“That was just awful. The fact that people think that’s OK shows why this discussion is still important and relevant, unfortunately,” she said. [via CNN]

The conversations are important so, let’s have a conversation:

What do you think of this “We’re a culture, not a costume” campaign.”

And speaking of funny costumes, here’s my wife’s costume at our church’s Halloween party:

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27 Responses

  1. Abby King-Kaiser says:

    Love the campaign. Thanks for sharing it. I am glad that students are making waves around this topic, esp. in Ohio. Grew up there and wish this kind of conversation went on at my school when i was in college.

    … small thing though. Hope you edit your comments, you don’t have to publish this… It was started at Ohio University, not Ohio State. OU is much smaller, much lesser known, and out in the hills, which makes their appearance in the national dialogue even more awesome in my opinion… sending this comment with admiration for your work and writing.

  2. Melody says:

    Thanks for writing this.

    After I wrote my own essay at Provoketive, http://provoketive.com/2011/10/29/we-are-a-culture-not-a-costume/, I thought “what do I know, being a white person?” But we need to speak out as much as anyone I think as we are most of the times the ones who so thoughtlessly perpetuate racism.

    Tonight I was out at a costume party and two white people were dressed up as Harlem Globe Trotters, wearing enormous Afro wigs. I definitely saw them differently than I might have at one time and after thinking so much about this of late.

    Why do we need to turn others in the caricatures when there are so many imaginative and fun costumes out there — like dressing up as your husband. Loved that!

  3. daniel so says:

    Eugene – Thanks for highlighting this. I wasn’t aware that people were mocking this movement by ‘shopping the original images, but I’m not surprised.

    As you said, “My point is that we never allow the conversation to get deeper beyond…the costume or attention or responsibility is deflected upon the ‘other’ person.” Unfortunately, this cycle is all too familiar: racially offensive incident / response / overwhelming backlash.

    Even in “harmless fun,” like Halloween costumes that mock or degrade a culture, ethnicity, or people, we need voices like yours.

    On a lighter note, my wife and I are also coordinating costumes this year (although she’s not dressing as me!): Along with some friends, we’re going to be the seven days of creation. I’m going to be all the land animals. Yikes 🙂

  4. A Czech ethnic pageant queen whom you know says:

    Thanks for sharing. I love the picture of you and your wife. I am glad the Ohio students began addressing the costume concern with these posters. I’m trying to decide if I saw someone wearing a Czech kroj (native costume) who was not Czech and had their hair/make-up done to look Czech if I’d be offended. I’m not sure. I know it would be somewhat of a mockery – they would probably have a beer in one hand and a crucifix in the other. I’m just not sure how I would react. If they added a bad accent and walked around saying “kiss me you little goose” or “the cat goes through the whole in the wall and the dog through the window” – loose translations of popular phrases, how would I feel? I don’t know. I think I would be more offended by someone who was not a Christian dressing to impersonate a Christian, because I would consider this an intentional mockery, not a naiive imitation.

    A friend of mine who is an immigrant to our country thought it would be neat to dress her children up in “Indian” costumes to go to the Native American museum. She thought she was being respectful. I wonder how much intention matters in these discussions.

  5. Kathryn says:

    It is imperative that educators and parents teach cultural respect and self esteem to every child in America. It is unfortunate that those virtus are not widely instinctive in mankind. These values must be taught.

  6. Maia says:

    I almost dressed Christian (my 13 month old) up as a tribal Samoan with fake tattoos and a loin cloth but I thought it would be too cold. Since I’m half Samoan I was thinking it’d be cute to see him looking like a baby warrior.

    Maybe because Samoans as an entire culture aren’t typically mocked or stereotyped in a derogatory way I wouldn’t be offended to see someone dressed up as a fire throwing, tattooed Samoan – but I wouldn’t dare think of dressing up as a culture that has a long history of oppression, prejudiced discrimination or anything close to it. It brings up too many hurtful suggestions and has a particularly cruel sting because people shrug it off as being just a joke.

  7. Rebekah says:

    Love this. Thank you.

  8. Ken says:

    Thank you Eugene for sharing this. Some costumes are extremely racist and offensive.

  9. Jason says:

    I hate Halloween all together, but that is a different topic. I think issue here is just a reflection of the bigger picture, and that is how the media, movies, etc still in some circles portrays various cultures.

  10. Brandon says:

    My wife dressed up as an Indian woman (from India). No, she didn’t color her skin, but drew henna-style tattoo on her hand, wore beautiful, authentic-looking jewelry, and put a dot of something shiny on her forehead. She took care in looking the part, and I think she represented a beautiful culture with gorgeous traditions.

    She was actually concerned that she was doing the wrong thing after she saw these Culture-Not-Costume ads. I thought she was beautiful and she wasn’t aiming for laughs, but for authenticity as best she could with what we had at home.

    Is this wrong? Or is it wrong only if the costume garners laughs?

    • Eugene Cho says:

      Brandon: I guess this is where people have varying opinions.

      I have no doubts about you and your wife and your opinions and intent. But here’s my question:

      If you asked 100 Indian women (and men) and asked for their thoughts about a random White woman dressing up as an Indian woman (however beautiful) during Halloween, I wonder what they would say and feel. Granted, not everyone may feel a certain way but I wonder how that would impact our decisions to wear what we wear.

      Something to think about.

  11. A.J. Swoboda says:

    Eugene –

    Thanks for your honesty here. It is entirely understandable why the culture of costumes can be hurtful if not downright offensive. Not to mention that costumes will often highlight the elements of a culture that can be caricatured rather than celebrated.

    What if next year, everyone dressed up as themselves? Or at least who they would want to be.

    I’d definitely have bigger bicepts.

    Thanks man.

    A.J. Swoboda
    http://www.ajswoboda.com

  12. […] we’re a culture, not a costume? Let’s be honest. We love dressing up…or down. And most of us love dressing up in our costumes for Halloween. Heck, we actually spend $310 million dollars/year on costumes…for our pets. Wow. Source: eugenecho.com […]

  13. […] } A Traditional Favorite Flies Its Broomstick to the Top of the Most Popular Halloween Costume Listwe’re a culture, not a costume? […]

  14. gregory says:

    johnny depp is a culture, not a costume…

  15. […] Don’t caricature another real culture. Why? Because we’re a culture and not a costume. […]

  16. Geo says:

    I know this is a mad old article. But, here is my two cents. I am offended when I see a clown costume, I am offended on Saint Patrick’s Day every year, I am offended when people talk about potatoes, paddy wagons, Irish cops, or wear kiss me I am Irish shirts. All of these celebrations and everyday things, are a testament to stereotypes of the Irish.

    I don’t want to see clowns, I don’t want to hear paddy wagons, and I am certain that I don’t want people going out on St. Pat’s if they can’t name the 32 counties.

    I agree people are ignorant, and don’t mean it to be stereotypical. That is why I let it go, because my people helped set-up the Big Apple Circus and it ain’t moving. When we are all together on banning clowns, that is when I will agree with this message.

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One Day’s Wages

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As we honor Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., don't forget the God behind the man. The one true God who deposited this dream into MLK is still speaking to us today. Are we listening?

Be courageous. Be brave.

Being invited by the King Family to speak at the MLK worship service at Ebenezer Baptist Church in 2016 remains one of the most unexpected honors of my life. On the right is his daughter, Dr. Bernice King and his sister, Dr. Christine King Farris. Walking throughstreet markets in different parts of the world is the best. Soaking in the culture. Listening to the local language and music. Enjoying the amazing cuisine. Meeting new friends. Praying for the Gospel to penetrate. #ChiangRai Blessed be the local, indigenous leaders for it is they who live in the very communities they seek to love. For it is they who understand their context and culture...better than a Westerner ever will. For it is they who will continue to tenaciously pursue a better world with hope, justice and love when visitors like me leave.

Yes, blessed be the local, indigenous leaders. What an honor and privilege to celebrate with the on-the-ground local @thefreedomstory team to celebrate the recent opening of their Education and Resource Center for the local youth in Chiang Rai, Thailanf. This was made possible through a partnership and matching grant by @onedayswages and The Freedom Story.

While it was an honor to be there to cut the cord and say a few words, this is an example of collaboration. Much love to the Freedom Story team including their co-founders Tawee Donchai and @Rachel Goble, to their staff who live in the community, who understand their context and culture, and who tenaciously pursue a better world with hope, justice and love. And of course, much love to the students themselves for they each matter. Finally, to each person that donated to @onedayswages to make this grant possible.

May hundreds and even thousands of youth be impacted, encouraged, and mentored. May they capture a glimpse of God's love for them.

Photo: @benjaminedwards Part 2 on my wrestling with the complex issue of human trafficking. In part, documenting my trip to Thailand for @onedayswages...to listen, learn, and visit one of our partner orgs @thefreedomstory. More to come.

There's such painful and poignant irony in pursuing justice...unjustly. One way we do this is when we reduce people into projects...and thus, propagating the dangerous power dynamic of US as heroes and THEM as helpless and exclusively as victims. So dangerous.

Human trafficking is not just an issue. It’s ultimately, about people. Depending on the sources of statistics, there are anywhere from 29-40 million people in some form of forced labor and slavery, including sex trafficking.

And one thing I’ve learned, personally, is how easy it is easy to reduce people into projects which is why mutuality, reciprocity, and dignity are so vital. These are critical because God never intended people to be reduced into projects.

We forget this and we indirectly foster a culture and system of victimization or worse, the pornification of the poor or in this case, "the trafficked." And when you start dehumanizing the poor or trafficked, you have no genuine desire to build relationships with them. You believe or build stereotypes in broad strokes, singular, black and white narratives that have been told about them. You believe the lie that they have nothing to teach us and are incapable of contributing to the larger society.

Lord, break our hearts for the things that break your heart. Give us eyes to see others through your eyes. Give us humility so that we acknowledge our own need to learn and grow. (Photo via @thefreedomstory) May our hearts break for injustice and exploitation - whether abroad or in our own backyard. Spending a few days for @onedayswages in Thailand. Along with one of our board members, I'm traveling with a group of 10 others to learn, listen and visit a few NGOs including one of our partners, @thefreedomstory. Couple days ago, we spent an evening walking through Soi Cowboy. On a given night, about 10,000 people are in the ring of prostitution in Soi Cowboy, Nana Plaza, and Patpong. Much of this is driven by the consumer demand. Approximately 70% of male tourists go to Thailand for the sex industry.

Human trafficking is complex. Anyone that says otherwise is lying or selling you something. 
To reduce it to simple terms, or simple problems, or simple solutions…cause harmful consequences. While we can all agree that it is sinful, egregious, evil, and wrong…there are many nuances and complexities. It would serve all of us to grow deep in the awareness not just of the larger issue but the nuances and complexities.

When people speak of human trafficking, they tend to be ‘attracted’ to the issue of sexual exploitation. Dare I say it, human trafficking has become trendy as a justice issue.

Clearly, it’s evil and egregious. But to reduce the entire issue of human trafficking into one form is not helpful. Because the mission is to fight the entire injustice of slavery. And if that’s the commitment, we have to not only combat sexual exploitation but engage in issues of poverty, forced labor, commercial exploitation in tourism, land rights and power abuses, organized crime networks, cultural and economic realities, etc.

Oh, it's so complex but we have to be engaged whether in Thailand or in our own backyards. May our hearts break for the things that break the heart of God... More thoughts to come.

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