Can an Asian American Dress Up as a Geisha for Halloween?

Can an Asian American Dress Up as a Geisha for Halloween?

With Halloween less than a month away, I knew what I wanted to write about this month: Racist Halloween costumes. Even though I don’t dress up and haven’t since I was a kid, I understand that Halloween is really important to a lot of people. There have been a lot of articles about racist Asian costumes already, including this evergreen one by my esteemed 8Asians editor Moye, Top 8 most offensive Asian Halloween costumes.

Of course, racist Halloween costumes are not just limited to dressing up like a slutty geisha or in yellowface. Every year people seem to make the bad… err racist… choice of dressing up like a Native American princess or in black face. Here is a good rule of thumb, if you’re going as a person from another race then you’re either close to the line or went over it. For some do’s and don’ts on Halloween costumes, here’s a great article on GQ.

that helps break it down.  Some of my favorite rules they listed are:

  • Don’t Change Your Skin Color to Any Shade Found in Humans
  • Choose a Subject Identifiable by Name

But what if you’re a person of that race? Is it okay to dress up for Halloween as a member of your own group? In other words, as an Asian American, can I go as a geisha? Or a ninja? One part of me thinks it’s okay. Similar to the old adage that I can make fun of my own family but no one else can. But a bigger part of me thinks that it’s not a good idea. It would just reinforce stereotypes.

I imagine some of this debate has to do with what the costume is. I mean there is a big difference between going to a party as a geisha than as a ninja. Or is there? And also, if I’m going as a specific person, that’s probably okay, right? I mean, I could be Bruce Lee, Genghis Kahn, or some other Asian/Asian American.

I decided to ask my friends on Facebook what their thoughts were. Some of the answers surprised me and others were enlightening.

First, I was surprised that not everyone agreed with me about non-Asians dressing up as Asian.

  • I do not find it ‘racist’ for anyone dress up as a geisha, ninja or whatever stereotypical ‘asian’ as long as your intention is to celebrate the spirit of Halloween.
  • Mickey Rooney portraying Mr. Yunioshi was racist. But non-Japanese adults and children trying to dress up in Japanese clothing, or what’s imagined to be Japanese clothing, for Halloween, it’s not the same thing. The skimpy geisha costume is silly, frivolous, funny, tasteless, just like the Queen Nefertiti and other costumes in the same ad. But someone who actual sees a cultural or racial insult in these must have an inferiority complex deeper than the Grand Canyon. It’s Halloween, no need to take any of this seriously, nobody else in the world is doing so.
  • Personally, I don’t really care if people dress up in outfits that are of other nationalities, probably because I’m old, and everything wasn’t so PC when I was growing up. I think if it’s in the spirit of being a “character” and not just “being Asian”, it should be okay. For instance, a samurai or ninja, I think is fine. I guess geisha is okay too. I think I went to a party once in kimono but with a gigantic Japanese doll bobble head on. As a little kid, I dressed up as Mary Poppins, who is white, so was I being racist?
  • Once in a dating relationship with an African American woman, we both wanted someday to show up at a Halloween party dressed as Genghis Khan and Chaka Khan, but we couldn’t agree on who would be GK and who CK. Halloween is not supposed to be historical accuracy, where did anyone get that stupid idea? People want to dress up as ersatz Asians, I got no particular problem with that. I can tell between when someone is trying to be insulting from when someone is just having fun.

Some people schooled me that it was all about intention and really up to the viewer.

  • It’s all about your intention, in my opinion. If someone is going to wear a mostly authentic Japanese kimono to showcase the beauty of the Japanese culture, then that is totally fine with me. I probably wouldn’t be ok with the “slutty” version of that though… which seems to be the direction most Halloween costumes go.
  • I am guilty of wearing a kimono for Halloween in college before. I recently attended a party and a friend of a friend asked me if I was offended (bc I am half Japanese) that she was a geisha and wore a kimono-ish dress and hair up with chopsticks, I said no, but I know plenty of people who would be, it just depends on the person and how PC you are. I have also seen friends who dressed up as specific black rappers and used tanning stuff (like blackface) and that made me uncomfortable, but some black friends thought it was hysterical so it all depends on the people and the intent. As mentioned before by someone else, I think being a specific character or person is different than being an offensive race stereotype for Halloween.

Most people confirmed, it was about being someone specific from a race… as opposed to just being anyone from a race.

  • I feel like that’s different. She’s dressing up as a specific individual/character. If someone just put on Chinese clothes and said they’re dressing up as a Chinese person for Halloween, that’s kind of offensive. If they dress up as Bruce Lee or Genghis Khan, I don’t mind, because they’re paying tribute to a person/character rather than generalizing a whole group of people.

But as far as is it okay for Asian Americans to dress up as Asian for Halloween, it seems most people didn’t have a problem with it:

  • Every year I see a lot of adorable little Korean American girls wearing their hanbok and Chinese American girls wearing their qi pao that they presumably already had for new year’s — so at the elementary age it’s hard to fault ethnic pride and immigrant mom frugality (and a friend of my boy’s just carried around his big brother’s calculus book lol)

But there’s a warning. The same commentor added:

  • Although when my kids were little, they always dressed as specific people– Chang e (the moon lady) and Michelle Kwan and mulan and Sun Wu Kong the monkey King– but no one but they ever knew that, and even when people asked they never knew the reference and would say instead “oh you’re dressed as a little Chinese girl”

So what did I learn? Asians can wear Asians costumes. Great. I’m going to try to get my six-year-old to dress up as a ninja because I think they are pretty cool. But just to be safe, I’ll tell him he’s Fujibayashi Nagato, one of the most famous ninjas of all time or just that he’s Rain from Ninja Assassin.

Follow me on Twitter @Ksakai1

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