Many don’t often understand why dressing up as people from other races and cultures is perceived as offensive, beyond the fact that it “hurts people’s feelings.”
I have a story from last Halloween that illustrates the problem perfectly.
I was at a Halloween party in Westwood (UCLA’s college town), not dressed up as usual. In attendance was a guy (let’s call him Bob because he’s basic and I don’t remember his name) who I’d had an argument with the week before. En route to a different party, I had overheard him and a friend drunkenly laughing about just leaving a party because there were “too many Asians” in attendance. I called them out in front of everyone on the street, yelling at them and calling them racists. That’s obviously the worst thing you can call someone, so they followed me around that night desperately trying to convince me that they weren’t racist (Bob had done mission work in Africa apparently, so he was incapable of such tyranny!!!).
Fast forward to Halloween night, and it turns out Bob’s roomates was one of my friends. His roommate approached and tried to convince me to give Bob another chance, that he wasn’t racist, and that he felt really bad about what he did. He introduced Bob formally to me and then left us to become bffs.
There was only one problem. Bob’s costume that night was a large sombrero, furry black moustache, and an oversized poncho.
He tried to chat me up about different random topics, but I was visibly deadpan and uninterested in conversing with him. He then asked my why I wasn’t dressed up, and I told him that I’m not really into American holidays. Since we were now on the topic of costumes, I asked him what he was dressed up as.
He paused before answering, suddenly hesitant. Avoiding eye contact, he responded, “Umm… well… nothing.”
“Huh?” I replied. “You’re clearly dressed up as something—”
“Oh, yeah. Well I couldn’t really find anything, so I guess I sorta just threw this together and now… I’m kinda like a Mexican or something.”
“Right.” I turned away from him.
“Well are you going to dress up tomorrow?” He inquired. “There are so many more parties to attend!” No. I wasn’t. But he was persistent.
“Come on, man. You gotta dress up! Here, I’ll help - what have you always wanted to dress up as?”
I looked at him from top to bottom, my gaze stopping at a bottle of red hot sauce in his left hand. I turned toward him and finally gave him a welcoming smile. “Fine! I wanna dress up as a white person.”
He looked at me as if an eyeball had just popped out of its socket. “What? Dress up as a what?”
“You know, a white person. I’d love to be that. Can you help me out? What should I wear?”
He laughed, seemingly relieved that I was finally engaging him in a friendly manner. “Oh come on man, don’t be silly. You can’t just dress up as a white person.”
“Because, man… white people are diverse. You’ve got skater boys, hillbillies, businessmen, rich people, poor people, hipsters, bros, hippies, nerds… so many different types. There is no one way to just generally be ‘a white person.’”
I laughed incredulously. “Oh… but wait. You can dress up as a Mexican but I can’t be a white person? Is there just one way to be a Mexican, then?”
He froze. “Oh, no! There’s not just one way to be a Mexican…” his voice trailed off, unsure of itself.
“Ok. So what other ways could you have been a Mexican?”
I stared at him with a closed-mouth smile and arms crossed, patiently waiting for an answer. But Bob was struggling, scanning the room full of ghosts, goblins, and Indians for a politically correct answer.
“Well, to be a Mexican… I guess I could have been a gardener.”
Our conversation ended there. (I may or may not have told him to get out of my face.)
Bob did come back as the party ended to vaguely thank me for making him think. But I was once again cold and uninterested. And now when he sees me around campus, he makes sure to awkwardly look away or walk in a different direction.
I’m not in college anymore, but the saga continues - I’m writing this while at my corporate job, and one of my coworkers is dressed as a gangster, decked out in a red bandana, baggy Dickies, and a checkered shirt only buttoned at the top. He’s a grown man dressed as a one-dimensional “Mexican.”
When you dress up as other races, you’re not only covering up your own identity — you risk covering up your mind’s ability to differentiate real people from their stereotypes and caricatures.