What? That’s not racist!

Here’s the story – a male cop in St. Paul, Minnesota decided it would be funny and clever to dress up as a female Somali Target employee for a private Halloween party that he attended last year. He wore a hijab, tucked a cell phone next to his face underneath the hijab, and pinned a Target nametag bearing a common Somali name to the front of his clothes. Someone took a photo of him in his costume and that photo was posted to Twitter. Now the backlash is starting to catch up to him.

The woman that he turned into a costume – I know her. In the South Minneapolis neighborhood where I live and shop, I have walked by her on the street, smiled at her, shared a bus seat with her, and have done business with her. For some reason, this man thought she was something to be mocked – a stereotype that he could wear, a joke.

His apology, as quoted by the Star Tribune, is a mockery of apologies – a prime example of the Not-Pology (i.e. – he’s very sorry if you were offended). Actually, I think the Star Trib captured it perfectly in the title of their article: “St. Paul officer in hijab apologizes for photo.” There is no doubt in my mind that he is quite sorry about the photo.

In addition to this story, I want to talk about the discussion that was had about this story that took place among me and some acquaintances. Someone was reading the paper and mentioned it. A few people sighed, shook their heads, said something to the effect of “That’s not right.” And then somebody said this:

“But you know…some people will get offended by anything.”

A few others chimed in with their agreement and it was ON. Here are some of the things that were said during that discussion:

“I don’t get why people are upset. It was just a joke.”

“He wasn’t trying to be offensive.”

“But…it’s Halloween! And really, his costume wasn’t that much different than the stuff they sell in Halloween stores. Nobody says those costumes are racist.”

“We’ll just have to disagree.”

You all are a pretty savvy bunch when it comes to issues of racism and privilege. I’ve learned a lot from the blogs and commentary that I read, and apparently all that internet-learning has paid off; I was pleasantly suprised to find myself holding up a pretty cogent argument for why the cop was in the wrong and why it was wrong to try to shame the people who were offended by his actions.

Let me step back and share something with you: It’s taken me a long time for me to begin to grasp the complexities of race, class, gender, sex and ableist privilege. Hell, to grasp the idea of privilege at all. And I’ve still got a ways to go. I’ve had some deeply uncomfortable moments when being confronted with these issues. It seems strange to have to go through so much internal struggle and self-questioning to come to this understanding:

“Oh! I get it! What I’m doing is offensive because you’ve told me that I’m being offensive. I should stop being offensive.”

But really – it’s that simple.

We can learn a lot by letting our discomfort be the starting point for conversations. Although, as was recently pointed out to me, the person who has been offended might not feel like having a conversation about the offense-causing behavior, in which case it becomes the our job to do the research and find out how and why we screwed up, and to try to not do it again.

Back to the conversation about the cop’s Halloween’s costume. Someone said this: “Anybody can be offended by anything, then! I don’t like your pink scarf. Pink offends me!”

O rly?

That argument is a distraction. First of all – you’re not offended by me wearing pink. Stop being an ass. And in my experience, people really aren’t offended “by anything” – they’re usually offended for a reason. When we say “some people are offended by anything”, we’re trivializing the worth of their complaint. It’s not right to dismiss someone’s pain or anger just because you can’t understand why they’re offended.

One surprising thing that seems to happen as I learn more about privilege is that complex topics sometimes get a lot simpler. For example, let’s revist the rest of those comments from the discussion:

“I don’t get it. It was just a joke.”

It’s not a joke to the Somali community that the cop was mocking.

“He wasn’t trying to be offensive.”

Doesn’t matter – he was.

“But…it’s Halloween! And really, his costume wasn’t that much different than the stuff they sell in Halloween stores. Nobody says those costumes are racist.”

Yes they do. Lots of people say that (too bad hyperlinks don’t work in r/l conversations).

“We’ll just have to disagree.”

OK. You’re still in the wrong. Also, it’s kind of shitty to play the “agree to disagree” card when we’re talking about whether or not we should treat our fellow human beings with respect.

Here’s another thought – take a look at the situation in which the offense happened. If some random man had dressed up like a Somali woman for a costume party, that would make him a jerk of one stripe or another. But this story is getting attention in part because the man is law enforcement officer who is entrusted with serving all of the citizens in his area. How can the Somali community trust him to serve them equally and fairly when his actions have shown that he thinks they’re a joke?

No really…how?

Well first, he could offer a sincere apology and acknowledge that his costume was unacceptable and bigoted. He could say “I was wrong. I apologize to the people who I offended. I will do and be better going forward.”

That would be an excellent start.