“White is like a blank piece of paper,” said the man dressed in a pointy straw hat and shapeless robes.
I had spotted him earlier in the evening amid a crowd of Halloween-ready adults decked out in their best renditions of Beetlejuice, the Princess Bride, Darth Vader, and Rick without Morty. When a man standing next to him waved me over, I decided to confront him.
The man, who said he was dressed as “The Drunken Master” (also the title of a Jackie Chan movie), finished off the costume with a wooden Japanese sword (or bokken) and those wooden cloggy sandals called geta in Japanese; they’re fucking uncomfortable to walk in. The getup was vaguely Asian but more a mishmashed stereotypical representation of what an Asian looks like. You know, like a Latino and a sombrero. No one looks like that in Japan except for maybe rural farmers.
It’s easy to chalk up the racist getup as a simple ignorant mistake. When I started talking to the man, however, I found that his own white identity—or, rather lack thereof—had caused him to desperately reach for any semblance of culture, even a racist, mass-marketed one. And that’s the danger.
I turned to the costumed guy and calmly asked if he thought his costume was racist.
‘“What?! No! This is an homage.”
He explained that he had made his bokken from scratch and kept telling me to look at it. I told him that was cool, but that his costume was problematic.
Then his friend jumped in, saying that he was Latino and Muslim, and he didn’t think the guy’s costume was racist. His female friend quietly pointed out how he made his costume from scratch. That’s all she said.
“I love your culture. You’re me,” said the costume guy. “Your culture has taught me so much.”
I told him that no Asian I knew dressed like that and that not all Asians are the same. When I asked him if he had Asian friends who called him out, he recounted how he used to take karate and how his “white trash” (his words, not mine) friends didn’t care about him.
Then he asked me. “What does it mean to be white?”
He answered his own question, not waiting for my response.
He told me how “my culture”—or his vague, superficial idea of some pan-Asian culture—is so respectful and honorable. White culture is hate and bad. He told me he believed that his costume was less about disrespecting “Asian” culture and more about proudly being who he “really was.” He saw no problem with the idea that who he “really was” was, as he said, really me.
I wondered what white people think it means to be white. What is white culture? Is it the Father Knows Best patriarchal families of the 1950s? Is it Hamburger Helper? Is it European ancestry? Is it the privilege you don’t want to acknowledge?
And what happens if you’re a white person and you don’t connect to that heritage, whatever it is? And what if no one in your family taught you about your identity? Who are you?
I’ve had conversations like this with my fiancé, who’s white. He was born in Louisiana and raised in North Carolina.
“White is just a bucket of pale people with no ties to their ancestors’ cultures,” he said. “But culture is the lens through which everyone sees the world and the pillar of people’s ‘I am’ statements about themselves, in many cases because we’re a tribal species.”
How ironic that it’s hard to have a sense of self when you’re an “Ideal American.” Mass media and politics have peddled an image of the mythical American family: middle-class, suburban, and not people of color, whose difference is often obvious, consumable, and reduced to costumes.
These days, my partner doesn’t describe his identity in terms of his race, but more about being a living thing (he’s a pescatarian who wants to be vegan); being male; and his own personal values like creativity, intelligence, and problem solving.
“I had to look at the world and develop core principles,” he said. “My overall answer is to learn to like living outside of any one culture because it lets me think individually about who and what I want to be.”
Of course, there are plenty of white folks who are still deeply connected to their European heritages and celebrate the holidays, eat the food, or speak the language. But it seems that for many who don’t have those ties, forming an identity that’s not fixed to an ethnicity can be difficult.
The more I listened to the costumed guy talk (he mentioned he was German, by the way), the more he sounded like the middle-America white people who voted for Trump because they felt like they were being left behind. That no one cared about them. That they didn’t feel seen.
It’s not the first time I’ve heard things like this. Not the first time that I’ve seen someone trying to latch momentarily onto a more “real” racial or ethnic identity. Just look at recently fired NBC host Megyn Kelly defending blackface.
Why though? Why this fascination and need to co-opt marginalized cultures? What else do you do when you think you’re a blank piece of paper?
Growing up, I wanted to go to sleep and wake up white. I hated my almond-shaped eyes, my complex name, my “gross” food, the way I tanned easily, my language, everything. It took me almost 20 years to shake my self-hate. Now, I love being Japanese. I’m proud to be Japanese and look back on those years of self-hate with understanding but sadness. I want my mixed-race kids to be proud of their Japanese side. And I don’t want them to feel confused about their whiteness either.
But I feel for you, confused white people. I’ve been there. Self-hate/identity-crisis/confusion is painful—and very normal. People of color at least get to talk about this confusion.
I know it’s not my job to make these white people feel better. They have little concern about my feelings when they presume to know what my culture is or cherry-pick it and then tell me it’s done in admiration. They don’t care about my feelings when they put their need for an identity above my years of experience living this identity.
Despite the rapidly dropping temperature, I stood outside, talking to this guy for at least half an hour. I wanted to understand; I wasn’t even that mad, I was confused and frustrated.
Other white people glanced our way, but said nothing. I’m almost positive no one else said anything to him the entire night. They let him into the party, didn’t they? They had to double-check to make sure the guy in the inflatable dinosaur costume could come in, but no one did a double take when Mr. Chinaman walked into the room.
And maybe it’s because they didn’t think the costume was racist. Maybe they don’t see the problem with trying to be another race for Halloween.
But we, the ones you’re wearing, don’t have the privilege to change race when we want to and reap the privileges of being white. So you might not feel like you have a culture, but that’s not our problem. Decades and centuries of racism by white men and women made whiteness the default. Many of us have spent years dissecting and accepting our identity without stepping on others to get there. You should be able to do that too.