Are Geisha Costumes Always Racist?

Generic image (Thinkstock)
Generic image (Thinkstock)

(The Root) —

"Help me settle a debate with my roommate. I'm white and she is of mixed heritage: African American and Japanese. However, she was raised by her African-American father and is not very much in touch with her Asian side. She plans to be a geisha for Halloween, and my opinion is that this is not appropriate and is potentially offensive (I will add that to the naked eye, you can't see that she's Japanese at all) and could really upset people, especially in our progressive college town. I think it's still cultural appropriation if this is not truly her culture, just a fun costume. She seems to think Japanese heritage gives her a pass. Your thoughts?" —Culturally Concerned


It seems that you're well-versed in the "Please don't choose a racist Halloween costume" conversation that we (meaning those of us who give a damn about not offending entire groups of people) have every year around this time. You know the one I'm talking about: the one that hasn't quite sunk in, because people say they're just having fun and therefore nothing can possibly go wrong.

We keep having to recycle these lessons because some dress-up enthusiasts have a really hard time grasping the concept that they can simultaneously mean well and do something that's messed up. That they can have fun and festive feelings and give other people angry and alienated feelings. That their innocent intentions do nothing to protect against the perpetuation of stereotypes and accompanying discrimination and making light of people's very identities.


This seems to be exactly what happened in the recent unfortunate case of the very earnest aspiring international English teacher who threw herself an African-themed birthday (not even Halloween — birthday!) party and felt massively misunderstood when the blackface-wild-animal-KKK-costume extravaganza was poorly received by the Internet.

The negative reaction was deserved. But to be fair, I can see how someone out of the racially progressive loop would have thought that party was just fine. After all, many still get the message that racism has to be intentional, hateful and conscious to hurt. Not so, of course. But no one is teaching that during Black History Month or any other time of the year.

That's why, last October, in an attempt at a remedial lesson, I interviewed experts who explained better than I could why the most common "but I'm a nice person" excuses for these getups don't hold up. (Consider flagging this piece to show to your roommate.)

Here's a little of what they had to say specifically about costumes of the geisha-Pocahontas variety — the ones that don't mock or rely on negative stereotypes in obvious ways:

The important question, Washington State University's [David] Leonard says, is, "Why are 'the other' and 'the exotic' such sources of enjoyment and pleasure" that they've become Halloween staples? "What does it tell us," he asks, "that amid all these scary things of ghosts and witches, we also have all these racialized costumes?" Plus, Leonard says, these choices "normalize whiteness" as the soccer mom or businessman in everyday clothes, thereby reinforcing inaccurate ideas about totally distinct racial and cultural communities.

… The "culture" costumes "tend to refer to very one-dimensional caricatures that are not at all authentic," says Leslie Picca Houts, associate professor at the University of Dayton.


Of course, it's easy to talk about these things in the abstract and harder to deal with a friend who's about to step into touchy territory. Especially when that friend is a member of the group that her costume risks offending most. "But she's not really really Japanese!" I hear you protesting. Well, this is where sensitivity and racial identity collide.

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?"

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