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Katy Perry has me wondering: Was my Halloween costume racist?

First Published      Last Updated Nov 26 2013 04:55 pm

The day before Halloween, my editor pleaded for coworkers to dress up so she wouldn't be the only person to arrive at The Tribune in costume. The spirit of the season struck me, and I decided to dress as Empress Dowager Cixi — the powerful, magnetic, ruthless politician who started out a concubine but ultimately brought China into the 20th Century (at which point her dynasty crashed and burned).

I've been sort of obsessed with Cixi since I saw an exhibit of her fabulous hats last year in the Forbidden City.

This was my version, fashioned from paper clips and jewelry.

Yes, it did occur to me that I am not Chinese. It also occurred to me that out-of-race costumes were getting more attention, especially after Julianne Hough's blackface depiction of the character Crazy Eyes from "Orange is the New Black." But, I figured, wearing a cool crown and a pretty dress was WAY less fraught than the contemptuous tradition of blackface.

Enter Katy Perry.

Perry performed "Unconditionally" on Sunday at the American Music Awards, costumed in some sort of Japanese kimono-Chinese qipao mashup of a dress. Dancers swung at big drums. Shadowy paper screens and red fans were involved.

Some critics objected to Perry mixing Chinese and Japanese elements as if Asian cultures are all the same. Others objected to the geisha-ness as a nod to the fetishization of Asian women.

And others say there's just no good way for a white person to use race or ethnicity in costume. Ravi Chandra, at Psychology Today, argues that the historical relationship of whites with other races cannot be removed from the image of a white person dressed up as a person of color.

"This kind of 'costume' is a way of acting out a power relationship," Chandra writes. "'Whites have historically held power. Therefore Katy Perry has the right to use Japanese culture.' Racism is defined as prejudice plus power—I think Katy Perry's performance meets the criteria for a racist performance."

That brings me back to my Cixi costume. Was it above all reproach? Probably not.

Was it a step above Perry's geisha dance or Hough's Crazy Eyes? I kind of think so. Unlike Perry's costume, mine was a particular historical figure — not just "Random Asian Person" — and Cixi notably turns the barfy servile-fetish-object stereotype on its head. Unlike Hough's costume, mine did not involve manipulating my own racial features.

Also, I have a lot of experience with and love for the culture I appropriated for the purpose of my costume. I lived in China for two years, I became conversant in Mandarin and I've traveled all over the country. Doesn't that familiarity earn me the privilege of dressing as Cixi for Halloween?

Or is that the Halloween version of "Some of my best friends are [insert target of rationalized racism here]"?

At the end of the day, I have to admit Cixi wasn't an inscrutable costume choice. Not hotly offensive, but not inscrutable. Cixi never would have worn a sleeveless dress anyway. Without the crown, I would have just been dressed up as "Random Asian Person." Perfect for a music awards show, maybe, but not without at least a shadow dance of trouble.

— Erin Alberty

Twitter: @erinalberty