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.

Ohio STARS 2012 Costume Campaign

Woo-hoo! Halloween is just around the corner! What are you dressing up as? A witch? A pirate? A clown? A nun? An inappropriately sexy fairy tale character?

There are a lot of options for playing dress up during Halloween. While you’re thinking about your costume, the Ohio STARS - Students Teaching About Racism in Society – asks you to think before you settle on a costume. For the past two years they have launched a poster campaign aimed at bringing awareness to racially and culturally insensitive and offensive costumes.

I’d also say have a second thought about woman- and gay-bashing costumes. Maybe leave the ditzy blonde, the dirty hooker and flaming queer costumes at home this year?

These are three of the posters from the “We’re a culture, not a costume” campaign. This year’s theme is “You wear the costume for one night. I wear the stigma for life.” You can click on any of the images to be redirected to the STARS webpage, which includes all six of this year’s posters as well as those from the 2011 campaign, “This is not who I am, and this is not okay.”

.         Asian Stereotype Costume African Stereotype Costume Black Stereotype Costume

I think this campaign is targeted to people who may be unaware of the implicit racism that is prevalent in so many Halloween costumes. Hell, the costume companies do a great job at perpetuating racial and cultural stereotypes in their manufactured, packaged ensembles, and if they say it’s okay… Last weekend I stopped in to one of the temporary Halloween stores that pop up at this time of year and saw getups for a drunk Mexican, a ghetto pimp, and a hillbilly hick. Srsly?

Have fun, dress up as whatever you like. Only you know the company and context in which you and your costume will be seen, and this does play a role in appropriateness. Or maybe you’re going for inappropriate. *shrugs*

No one’s telling you what to wear, just asking you to be aware of what message you and your costume will be sending. Are you cool with it? Cool. Does it make you uncomfortable? Go change.

Damn it, Jar Jar Binks!

So, this conversation ensued after I asked someone about the Jar Jar Binks doll on her shelf.

Me: Jar Jar Binks was your son’s baseball team’s mascot? With all the issues surrounding that charcter? That’s an odd choice.

Her: What? Why? What issues?

Me: (Danger danger Will Robinson) You know, all the hulabaloo about Jar Jar being racist…err…that is (how to explain this) how he was a racist caricature of Jamaicans or of black people who use ebonics.

Her: WHAT? Are you kidding me? I’ve never equated Jar Jar Binks with racism.

[Read more...]

CeCe McDonald’s Murder Trial

Update (5/2/12 12:50pm): Colorlines is reporting that CeCe has taken a plea deal that could result in a 41-month jail sentence: “Reports out of Minneapolis have it that CeCe McDonald has accepted a plea deal to second degree manslaughter due to negligence in the death of Dean Schmitz. ”

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CeCe McDonald, a 23 year-old, black, transgender woman is looking at up to 80 years in prison for a hate crime-induced fight that left one man dead.

Here’s what’s being reported by Minnesota Daily and colorlines.com – While walking past Scooter’s bar in Minneapolis, CeCe and her friends were subjected to homophobic, transphobic, racist slurs by a group of three white bar patrons, one of whom was displaying swastika tattoos. A fight broke out. CeCe was physically attacked – allegedly one of of the attackers broke a bottle on her face, causing a laceration that required 11 stitches to close – and another of the attackers, Dean Schmitz, was killed – stabbed by a pair of scissors from CeCe’s purse.

The details will be established during CeCe’s trial, but at least the court will take into consideration the fact that the fight was likely started because hate crimes were committed, right? From Minnesota Daily:

Minnesota Public Radio’s recent coverage of the case focused on a debate that has become central to McDonald’s case: Should the hate crimes committed and attempted against McDonald be a consideration in her trial?

Both Minneapolis City Council member Cam Gordon and Rep. Susan Allen, DFL-Minneapolis, have weighed in, urging Hennepin County attorney Mike Freeman, the prosecutor in this case, to mind the hate crimes committed. Freeman, however, has stated that McDonald’s “gender, race, sexual orientation and class” will not be considerations in his case against her. Then of course there were the story’s comments, many of which made the claim that hate crimes don’t actually exist.

Nah, the fact that a young, black, transgender woman was walking down the street, was verbally assaulted by white supremacists (well I shouldn’t assume…I suppose the swastikas might have been applied in the ancient historical context, as a tantric symbol to evoke peace and a sense of eternity) and had a bottle broken on her face had nothing at all to do with the fact that CeCe was a young, black, transgender woman.

CeCe’s trial began yesterday.