Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Are Era-Themed Parties Racist? It's Complicated

My dear friend posted to a comic and essay on his Facebook page originally posted on Empathize This. Here's the original comic:

The anonymous author writes,

"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 — specially if I’m the only person who isn’t white."

My friend's link started a nasty debate, as it often does, but I didn't comment. I needed the space to share my own thoughts, of which there are many.

I want to start by saying that this writer's experience is his/her own and that's perfectly okay. However, this discussion feels a little incomplete to me. Yes, I myself have felt the awkwardness of being the only black person in the room at an era-themed party, but that discomfort comes primarily for not seeing another black face and briefly wondering if people think I'm out of place. But I think this writer is falling into a trap that both white people and people of color fall into: the idea that everybody who wasn't white in the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s had a terrible, terrible life across the board.

My mother has a big book about her family history. It has nursing school and college degrees from her mother, grandmother, and aunts. It has photos of her relatives in Harlem wearing fur coats that have since been passed down to her. She can point to a picture and say this person was a minister, this person was a member of the Links, Incorporated, a black women's service organization founded in 1946 (was colorism at work in organizations like the Links? Yes, but that's a topic for a different post). This is all in addition to gorgeous photos I've seen and collect of black people looking fabulous and getting shit done during the Harlem Renaissance and beyond.

"Harlem Couple, 1932", James Van Der Zee, via

First Western Association Links, Inc. conference, 1956

Of course, there is a history of pain, subjugation and oppression that we're still wrestling with in very obvious ways. And some party themes are more problematic than others. I would, for example, hesitate to go to a Cotton Club-themed party, because I know the Cotton Club made tons of money off black performers who had to enter through the back door, while reserving seats for white patrons only.

It is just as important for us to study and remember successful, maybe even affluent, people of color when we look at these past decades. When someone, whether black or not, says an era-themed party automatically means it's about people of color being oppressed, that seems to me to skip a big part of the conversation. It also stings me a bit because I've had to deal with people making assumptions about my own experiences because I'm black and therefore must have grown up poor or not knowing certain things. Of course systemic racism meant obstacles in terms of access to education, wealth, and everything else for our ancestors. Every era has it's problems with race, class, and gender equality. We're moving forward, yes, but there are still problems. The bottom line is these vintage-themed or nostalgia parties are primarily about the fantasy. It's about how amazing you can feel when you step out of your normal life and into an incredible 1940s cocktail dress. It's about wishing clubs still had white tablecloths and floor shows.

 And no, a Jay Gatsby wouldn't invite black people to his party. But does that mean I'm not going to enjoy myself at the Jazz Age Lawn Party? Absolutely not.


  1. This is an interesting topic. People talk about what era they should have lived in, forgetting that in most of the past, being anything other than rich was a harsh existence. I prefer now, when I can enjoy the things I like about an era (clothes and architecture) and don't have to live the negatives. I'm one-quarter Pacific Islander with fair skin and blue eyes. I identify as white. My husband is of Asian descent, and we have two biological children with all sorts of DNA! No, I don't long for an era when my interracial marriage was illegal and my middle class status nonexistent. I can pick and choose what I appreciate about past eras. My first thought about a 1920s cocktail party would be that it's a celebration of flapper clothes and cocktails, not a chance to relive the sociopolitics of the era. That being said, my husband's grandparents got married in the United States in the 1920s, and they and their attendants wore full American wedding attire of the era. Absolutely gorgeous. (His parents got married in Japan in the 1950s in traditional Japanese wedding attire. Also gorgeous.) On another note, I went to high school in the South in the 1980s. The big crinoline prom dresses were still in. The black girls would NOT wear them. A "Scarlett O'Hara" dress, as one girl called it, has way more political baggage than a flapper dress. Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

    1. Thanks for reading and responding! That's a really, really interesting point you raiseda bout the Scarlet O'Hara dresses. I'd never heard that before.


Thanks so much for your comments!