BY KRISTIN CHANG
In fifth grade, I dressed up as Hermione Granger for Halloween.
My costume was made entirely of household parts: my wand was a chopstick, my robe was stitched from an old baby blanket, and I’d drawn red and gold stripes onto a napkin for a tie. I was proud of my costume, down to the hand-drawn Gryffindor patch I’d pinned onto my robe all by myself.
Our fifth grade class had a school-wide Halloween parade, where all the kids could pose for or grimace at all the parents and teachers clustered on the sidelines, rapidly snapping photos of all the little angels and cats and Elmos. I rushed to the front of the line, giddy with the excitement of being Hermione, the girl who changed my life – who made me proud to be a geek, who was guided by compassion and intelligence in equal measure, and who we all know was the real hero of the series.
But as I wove through the crowd, I heard classmate after classmate shout: “Hey, it’s Cho Chang!”
Confused, I looked down at my costume – sure enough, the Gryffindor patch was pinned in place, my gold and red necktie perfectly straight. I wasn’t wearing an inch of blue, the color of Cho Chang’s house.
“Nice Cho Chang costume!”
That’s when I realized: I could never be Hermione. Hermione was white. Cho Chang was Asian. Naturally I was Cho Chang. And the worst part was that I hated Cho Chang, my least favorite character of the series: her sole job in the series was to cry over a white boy. She was perpetually mourning, a perpetual object of desire and the embodiment of being destroyed by the men around her. When people jokingly told us that with the same last name, we could be related, they didn’t know how right they were: her lineage is mine. She is a direct descendant of Lady Saigon and Madame Butterfly and the constant violence of racist imagination. JK Rowling herself admitted that she created Cho Chang solely to show how much stronger Ginny (a white woman) was in comparison – and forget the fact that “Cho Chang” as a name made no sense, especially for an apparently Chinese character.
But I wasn’t thinking of any of that in 5th grade. Instead, I was devastated by the fact that even on Halloween, the day where you “could be anything,” I was still just the Asian girl. Even so, I never gave up. I dressed up as Hermione for three years in a row, and each year, everyone eagerly told me how much they adored my Cho Chang costume. And as the years passed, someone even told me that the fact that I could dress up as Hermione, assumed to be white (though her race is never specifically mentioned), meant that it couldn’t be all that bad to dress up as a geisha.
It was all I could do not to hex her out of existence with my chopstick wand. In a world where whiteness is default, neutral, normal, and everyone else isn’t – where people of color are withheld or erased from movies, books, and positions of power – people of color dressing up as an assumed-to-be white character is not the same thing as a white person dressing up like a geisha. This is not some equal exchange of culture or power. There can be no such thing until there is genuine institutional and social equality, and that’s not going to happen unless people realize that there’s a difference between assimilation and appropriation. One is an act of survival. The other is an act of violent ownership.
Remember this: only white people can claim the privilege of “being anything” on Halloween. The rest of us can’t wear our race like a costume. I did eventually give up on being Hermione. She was white, I told myself, and white was the one thing you couldn’t ever be. I couldn’t truly see myself as Hermione in the first place, I soon realized: how could I? Emma Watson didn’t look like me. It was only later that I figured out that this wasn’t my failure at all, that it wasn’t my costume or how I looked. The problem was that no one had imagined me yet.
For people of color, Halloween can be radical and subversive. It can be a way of saying: Imagine me this.
Kristin Chang is a Staff Writer for EvenIfYourVoiceShakesSLC. She is from California. She studies languages, cries over poetry, and invents alter-egos-of-color for Wonder Woman. Read her previous contribution to the site here and here.