Hey, Your Themed Parties Are Awkward

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Hey, Your Themed Parties are Awkward

Panel 1

[Image] A smiling Caucasian woman with short hair facing the reader.

Woman: We’re having a 1920’s themed party! You should come!

Panel 2

[Image] The same woman, same expression.

[Caption] What I hear:

Woman: We’re having a “dress like a white person from the 1920’s” party! You should come!

Panel 3

[Caption] Cuz they don’t mean what my family wore in the 1920’s. Which is fine, I guess. But when I’m the only non-white person? I wish they would see how awkward it feels.

Panel 4

[Image] Four Caucasian people all facing each other in a group. They are dressed in headbands, fedoras, bow ties, and dresses – stereotypical 1920’s outfits. They are all smiling. At the edge of the group is a non-white man wearing a suit. He has a sad expression, and is looking at the other four people.

[Caption] In a room full of white people wearing clothes from an overtly racist era, at best I feel out of place…at worst I feel like I’m part of their costume as the servant.

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I love parties. House parties, Halloween parties, Super Bowl parties… you name it. I’m an outgoing guy and I like meeting new people and having a good time. But themed parties, can we talk about it?

Look, obviously some themed parties are stupid racist (hint, anything with blackface is racist). I’m not talking about those. I’m talking about the seemingly innocent 1920s themed parties. Or 1930, or any decade before 1960 really, let alone anything in the 1800s.

My white friends seem to like these parties. Fancy hats and moustaches and 3-piece suits and dresses with white gloves and things like that.

Let’s get a few things straight. When white people say they are throwing a “1920s themed party” they’re really saying “dress like a white person in the 1920s”. If I showed up the way MY ancestors dressed at the time, you would think I missed the memo.

Which is fine, I guess. But I really don’t think they understand that parties like this can get awkward. Especially if I’m the only person who isn’t white.

In a room full of white people wearing clothes from an overtly racist era, at best I feel out of place. At worst I feel like I’m part of THEIR costume as the servant.

Sure, I often end up having fun because I’m with friends…but it doesn’t mean it’s not awkward. The entire night, I’m reminded of my minority status. I think it’s one of those things white people never stop to think about (or experience), but it’s pretty obvious.

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10 responses to “Hey, Your Themed Parties Are Awkward”

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  1. Anonymous says: |
    June 23, 2014 at 5:07 pm

    Very well put! Sometimes I look at a skirt outfit I compile before a special occasion and think “Oh, this looks retro! Retro is cool” and then I catch myself, “…..minus the bigotry in that time, that is.” I just realized that the same can be said for Rennaissance (sp?) festivals I enjoy so much. I think it’s safe to say they’re more like medieval video game festivals because they don’t have all the women and non-white people portrayed badly, and witches/pagans and priests are walking side by side in harmony!

  2. Juliet says: |
    October 30, 2014 at 7:35 pm

    I understand what you are saying, and it is often easy to be unaware of the wrongs and crimes of the past when those things did not impact you. But don’t make the past untouchable. Also are you familiar with Harlem in the 20’s and 30’s? Almost the first time that a large cross section of African Americans had the chance to express themselves by dressing sharply.
    Check this link out for inspirational party outfits

    • Tak says: |
      October 30, 2014 at 8:33 pm

      While we can’t speak for the author, I think it might be important to note one thing – The author isn’t African American, nor were his ancestors in North America in the 1920s. You have to remember that colonialism was very much alive at this time. I won’t disclose details about the author beyond that, but suffice to say that all sorts of other POC – Asians, Latinos etc – were indeed often servants, and not just in Western countries.

      But really, details like this shouldn’t matter either way.

  3. Han says: |
    October 30, 2014 at 9:43 pm

    What can we, as white people, do to make these parties more comfortable for POC? Would it mean not hosting them at all, or would it mean something else to create a more inclusive atmosphere?

    • Tak says: |
      October 30, 2014 at 10:30 pm

      I can’t speak for the author, but here are my thoughts – no one is saying that you can’t host these parties. It’s one of the main reasons that the author said “your parties are awkward”, NOT “your parties are racist”. Remember, we share stories on Empathize This that show how life is experienced differently from those with privilege – and in this case, it’s an observation that because of the color of the author’s skin and historical context, themed parties can feel awkward when you’re the only POC in the room. It’s an awkwardness that white people won’t ever understand, and that’s all that the author is trying to say. It’s not an accusation that all themed parties are bad, nor that it’s something the author dwells on all night.

      From this point on is my own personal opinion, but if you wanted to make things inclusive, acknowledgement can go a long way. Even just jokingly. It shows you’re aware. Or make the theme not about a decade/time, but about a specific fashion style (big hats and suits, feathered hats… a film noir theme maybe?). A time period carries with it historical context, and I think that’s where the awkwardness can come from.

      • Kristen Sayers says: |
        November 1, 2014 at 10:46 am

        YES!!! Your party ideas are much more inventive and sound more fun 🙂

      • Julie says: |
        May 28, 2015 at 9:39 am

        I agree that a “1920s theme party” should be considered ambiguous. In the 1920s my ancestors were poor farmers with an asshole landlord. Some of my ancestors were not even in America yet. A few of my ancestors were prohibitionists, so for me to show up at a party surrounded by flappers as an in-character prohibitionist farm wife would be laughably awkward. Themed parties are better when they are about fantasy. Paying tribute to your ancestors at a theme party can get weird quickly.

  4. Adrian Ziepolt says: |
    October 31, 2014 at 11:56 am

    Good points. I think, however, that if the white friends throwing the party are actually friends, they will want to hear about the awkwardness that their friend feels. The will want to hear it because they are friends. Talk to them; they want to know. If the author truly feels that white people won’t understand this awkwardness, he has perhaps given up on the concept of empathy. It can be difficult to trust the bonds of friendship, but it is worth the experience.

  5. Rave says: |
    January 4, 2015 at 8:35 pm

    Excellent point. I have a question if anyone feels they’re willing/able to answer it. How do I, as a white person who does love themed parties, some of which come from times that also had a buttload of horrible oppression from many angles attached to them, navigate this in a way that’s sensitive? I live in New Zealand, and there aren’t many African American people here, and the social context is different (Maori people, the first settlers, are still oppressed here), but I still want to be sensitive and handle it appropriately. There are things about the past that I think are awesome, but I don’t want to just see those and forget about the awful stuff and the people who suffered because of it. Do I just avoid glorifying those times altogether? Do I include it in conversations relating to those things? Do I specify that it’s a ‘flappers and gangsters’ themed party rather than a 1920s themed party?

    I hope this doesn’t come across as a “but it’s so hard to be not a jerk” anti PC post, it’s a genuine question and I really want some more skills and knowledge in this area so at the very least I can be not making things worse.

  6. Trisha says: |
    December 2, 2016 at 10:32 am

    I’m a big fan of the guy who went to his company’s Southern plantation themed party dressed as a slave. He even positioned himself at the foot of the gran staircase so all the people in their lavish outfits could clearly see him. It got so awkward they cancelled the party immediately.

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