Chinese for a Night

November 12, 2005

Our company throws lavish holiday parties every year. Last year there was a full-on carnival, with popcorn, booths, stuffed animals and spray-on tattoos. The buskers didn't care if you cheated and everything was free. It was a good time. But they've just announced the theme for this year's party: Exploring the Forbidden City. I got real nervous. My anxiety was only confirmed today, when a conversation started on our internal messages board about what to wear to the party. One person said they'd dress as Willie from the Temple of Doom, or perhaps Gogo Yubari from Kill Bill. Someone else (Asian) pointed out that Gogo is from the wrong country, ahem. The response: another person chiming in with, "Time to break out my fu-manchu mustache!" oh. my. gosh. I don't even know where to start with this. For one, it's always bugged me when people dress up (for halloween, etc) as generic "Asian people." White girls wearing kimono with chopsticks in their hair in the Castro, for example. My culture is not a character for you to inhabit for a night, like Gumby or Betty Boop. It has the nasty feeling of exoticization, fetishization, slumming. I think we can all agree that no one, no one would dress up in black face and be like, "I'm african!" so why is it okay to dress up as an Asian? And then I wonder, am I being too sensitive? Would it bug me if someone ran around in lederhosen going, "I'm German, look at me!" not really. But then again, Germans were the colonizers and Africans were the enslaved and colonized. And the main way that slavery was justified was by characterizing Africans as stereotyped, inhuman caricatures, so perhaps that's where the sensitivity comes in. But I digress. My question is: where do you draw the line between the Halloween fun of dressing up as a character --as something that you're not-- and being in the insensitive, dangerous arena of cultural blackface? Of course, I'm referring to crossing color lines --I feel like I have every right to dress up like Anna May Wong if I want to. And if I had a white friend who loved her and wanted to create a costume in homage to her, i probably wouldn't have a problem with that. But people showing up to a "Forbidden City" party wearing fake fu manchus? That makes me cringe. (Also, when someone suggested "Oriental dress" for the party, it made me cringe. Unfortunately, I wasn't surprised.) So, any suggestions as to how I can tactfully tell people that I will be ripping fake queues and mustaches off of people's heads if i see them? Or do you think I'm totally off base and should just go have fun and be glad them Chinese are finally getting some attention?




Jennifer, you're totally justified for being uncomfortable with what they're doing.The situation is insane but not surprising. For some reason, there's very little stigma attached to dressing-up in yellowface. Possibly because it's been popping-up regularly in American culture since the dawn of mass media but there's never been a large enough (or vocal enough) contingent to convince people that this is just as insane as people wearing blackface.I'll bet your company would have nixed doing an African or Native American theme for "culturally sensitive" reasons (and, of course, for fear of negative publicity and possible lawsuits). And they'd probably nix an Arabian theme for additional reasons as well.You might want to find other people in the company that agree with you before taking action. Then you might want to speak with someone you trust in upper-management or, even better, in the legal department.And if you can find someone with a better theme idea, that might allay some people's disappointment.But if you don't want to say anything, I can understand. That's the sh*tty position we have to be in. But, hey, at least you have support from the best magazine blog in the universe.Good luck.
jennifer, you're not off base. go to human resources pronto and ask to talk to their diversity officer, or whatever the position's called. tell them this makes you uncomfortable, not even so much the theme of the party, but the *permission* the party theme has given your co-workers to have really, really borderline conversations about their costumes. be sure to start keeping a diary of things that people say, where, when and in what context. this is not to get people in trouble, but to help you make your point.also, a friend of mine was in a similar situation in her company, where for years she was blindsided by stupid jokes and insults to other asians (not *her*, of course). she felt so uncomfortable that she took action. what she DIDN'T do, however, is say anything to her coworkers, ever. jokes and insults flew all around her, but she never once said, "hey, it's not okay to talk that way around me. if you want to tell racist jokes, i can't stop you, but don't do it around *me*." so when the action came down and people were reprimanded and sent to diversity training, everyone knew it was her, but they all felt betrayed because she'd never given them a chance to defend themselves to her. don't make this mistake. speak up to your coworkers, and also cover your ass by speaking to management.
Send emails to HR and be sure to keep a record of all of your emails as well as all of the emails on your internal mailing lists. Print them all out and keep a file at home. I don't think the theme is acceptable and you should speak out...Its always a good idea to keep a print out of all emails that may be potentially offensive (sexual harassment, racist, etc). That way if you are ever terminated for performance, you can bust out a folder of the emails and say "well of course my performance sucked, look at the type of work environment i was in!" and then let the lawyers get to work.
Jenn, you are totally not off base. I actually blogged about a similar situation on my blog, earlier last month: definitely don't think you're being too sensitive. It's really important, I think, that we speak up when shit like this happens -- people who say stuff like that are never challenged with the racism of it, and so they continue to say it knowing they can get away with it. I think we have a right to make people who say stuff like that feel uncomfortable so that at the very least they recognize that there's someone in the room not putting up with it.
Where do you work?And I'd send your HR this blog address!