Are Geisha Costumes Always Racist?

On Halloween, cultural appropriation raises as many questions as identity itself.

Generic image (Thinkstock)
Generic image (Thinkstock)

The thing is, you don’t get to decide whether she’s — mathematically or physiologically — Japanese enough for this decision or for anything else in life. I’m very big on the idea that when it comes to ethnic identity, the only rule we can really work with is, “People are what they say they are.” Otherwise, who’s going to get the final word? No one. And we’ll all get a huge headache and waste a lot of time debating it. Regardless of her upbringing or skin color or hair, you can weigh in on how she comes off to you, but not who she is in her own mind.

This doesn’t mean the costume is necessarily in the clear. After all, it’s very, very easy to participate in offending people who share your culture or identity. Remember when Russell Simmons promoted that “Harriet Tubman sex tape“? In no way did his blackness make that choice go well for him.

Also, it’s really tough to make clear rules about who to defer to when it comes to this stuff. If Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder suddenly announced that he was one-sixteenth American Indian and proud of it, and felt fine about his team’s racist name, would that make it fine with the rest of us, too? Probably not. Meaning, definitely not.

I’ve probably raised more questions than I’ve answered here. But even though you asked me to settle a debate, let’s be honest: Debates about identity and offensiveness don’t really get settled. Rather than winning this particular disagreement, I think it might be better to aim for getting your friend to think as hard as you have about it. 

When it comes to your roommate and any other friends who are going the geisha or “African” route, here are a few questions that could encourage them to give this decision the consideration it deserves:

* What makes you want to wear this?
* What about it makes it fun?
* Where did the idea come from?
* Do you feel like it’s authentic?
* Are you thinking of this as celebrating your culture or making light of another culture?
* Would you wear it if you were from a different background?
* What are the best and worst reactions people might have?
* Have you seen this “We’re a culture, not a costume” project? Does it apply at all?

Maybe her own responses will change her mind. Maybe they’ll change yours. But if you end up heading out together to a campus Halloween party where the black-appearing girl imitating a geisha might elicit a collective side eye, I understand that you won’t want to appear insensitive by association. So here’s my only piece of really concrete advice: May I suggest that you choose a costume with a mask?

The Root’s staff writer, Jenée Desmond-Harris, covers the intersection of race with news, politics and culture. She wants to talk about the complicated ways in which ethnicity, color and identity arise in your personal life — and provide perspective on the ethics and etiquette surrounding race in a changing America. Follow her on Twitter.

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Previously in Race Manners: “Why Do Italian Men Love Black Women?”