It is 2012 and I should not have to write this. It should be pretty clear to you that dressing up as a person of another ethnicity or culture is wrong. It is wrong because it is stereotyping, essentialising and appropriating. You do not really see anyone dressing up as a ‘white person’ because whiteness is seen as default, normal, and usual. When you dress up as someone of another culture or ethnicity you are positioning that culture quite overtly in opposition to those ideas. You are saying that it is exotic, unusual and other. You are reducing a whole culture into an outfit that is based on stereotypes. This is hurtful and problematic because people still believe in those sterotypes and when you dress as a person of another culture you reinforce them.
For example, when you dress up, say, as a native American woman you deny the fact that native American culture is something that exists, and is dynamic and vibrant and alive today. You act as though a native American woman is a character from a story or a movie and not someone who is a living breathing person. Also costumes of native American women tend to shit all over actual native culture and traditions which is not a small thing, particularly considering the context where native American people’s culture was systematically brutalised to make them conform to a white majority society.
Dressing up as a particular person is very different from just dressing as a random member of a culture, for example I personally think dressing up as Mahatma Gandhi would be OK, just like dressing up as Albert Einstein would be OK whereas dressing as a random man is not. People develop identifiable quirks that is true and reasonable, but dressing as a person of another culture assumes that entire groups of people develop identifiable quirks and that this is true and funny. It isn’t.
There is a whole wide world of Halloween costumes, that range from mythical creatures to inanimate objects, there is really no reason to don a racist costume and yes dressing as a person of another culture is a racist act. It is not people being oversensitive, it is not people having harmless fun, because racist acts are never harmless. Reinforcing stereotypes causes harm, appropriation causes harm, and the harm that is caused is far deeper and more painful that the brief frustration you may feel at having to find a new costume. If you think your freedom to wear what you want is more important than doing damage and real significant hurt to a lot of people then I don’t really have time for you.
I would like to put forward the idea that feelings are important. They are not something that we should be cavalier and dismissive about. In our personal relationships we attempt to take care of the feelings of those around us, and I do not see why our public lives should be any different. This is not about “political correctness” this about basic human compassion. It is also about not being a racist jackass.