I always forget until it’s (almost) too late to do this every time Hallowe’en comes around. But it is that time of year again, when college students and young adults all over this great continent dress up as their favourite racial stereotypes because they lack the creativity and human decency to dress as something that isn’t incredibly offensive.
Luckily, there’s a student group in Ohio who are more on the ball than I am:
These posters act as a public service announcement for colored communities. It’s about respect, human dignity, and the acceptance of other cultures (these posters simply ask people to think before they choose their Halloween costume). Although some Halloween costumes aren’t as racist as the blackface minstrel shows back in the day, they harken to similar prejudices. What these costumes have in common is that they make caricatures out of cultures, and that is simply not okay.
It’s points like this that I despair over. Casual acts of racism committed unwittingly by people who are simply products of a system are frustrating, but people simply flagrantly ignoring basic human decency in the service of a Hallowe’en costume makes me sad. It is around this time of year that I find myself having the same fight I always do, and hearing the arguments I always hear. Let’s go through them.
Why can’t I dress like _______ if I want to? It’s just a costume!
For you it’s just a costume. For someone else it’s the slap in the face of being marginalized over and over again by a dominant culture that only treats your background, and the background of your people, as an amusing sideshow to be trotted out (and often sexualized) by wealthy college students. College students who have no understanding of the forces stacked against you and your people by a society that considers you the colourful “other”.
For someone else it’s just another example of the racism that you see every day, played up as something to be laughed about, with you as the butt of the joke once again. It’s every offensive stereotype brought up to the surface, not to be discussed and dealt with maturely with you as part of the conversation, but to be held up as exemplary. Your role is not to express your (completely legitimate) concern and disgust at your people being portrayed in this way, but to laugh along because it’s “just a joke”. In fact you will be told it’s your fault for being offended – that your job is to comply with the wishes of the majority, rather than the majority’s responsibility to demonstrate a modicum of sensitivity.
Why are you picking on white people?
The glib answer to this question is that it’s white people who do this. Most members of minority groups have enough of an experience with being on the receiving of racism to know that it’s a bad idea to mock other cultures, even if it’s a totally sweet costume.
The longer answer is that because white people are the dominant group (not just in terms of numbers, but in terms of political and economic power), they are the ones who tend to be most blind to racism. It is as a direct consequence of this blindness that they seem to think it’s harmless fun to appropriate the cultural traditions of other groups into super-fun costumes. What these “costumes” represent – whether it be proud cultural traditions or cheap racist stereotypes – is immaterial to the wearer of the costume. All that matters is getting a laugh (and maybe a free Pabst).
It’s not my intention to offend!
Wow do I ever not care about what your intention is. If I hit you with my car, does it un-break your leg when I tell you that it was “totes an accident”, or that I didn’t mean to run you over “in that way”? No. Of course it doesn’t. And like the very physical harm of a car collision, being slammed into headlong with open and unabashed racism can cause real emotional harm. This is especially true when that kind of attack, which is what it is perceived as regardless of the intention, comes from people you consider friends.
I was once at a Hallowe’en party on the Vancouver north shore. I was very happy to be invited, as I had just moved to Vancouver and was eager to make new friends. I was dressed, incidentally, as Malcolm X that year. I had been through the door for about 10 seconds before I was confronted by a man in blackface, wearing an afro and a vest, claiming to be dressed as Lenny Kravitz. He took one look at me, and at the horror in my eyes, and said “sorry, dude.” This revealed to me instantly that he knew he was fucking up, but didn’t think there would be any black people at that party – a safe bet on the north shore. I don’t hang out with those people anymore.
Where’s “the line” between homage and offense? Why can’t a white person pay tribute to someone from another race/culture?
I know you probably think this is a legitimate question, so I’ll try not to make fun of you too much. I will, however, talk to you like a child. You see, when someone tells you “please don’t do that”, that’s where the line is. I know. It’s hard. So confusing. Like when rape apologists try to figure out what “no” means. And while I’m sure you think it’s a completely different situation because you’re not a rape apologist, you are in fact a racism apologist, and I don’t really recognize a monumental difference.
What you say when you wear cheap, tawdry stereotypes, or even well-crafted and thoughtful stereotypes, is a combination of two statements. First, you are saying that you don’t care enough to consider the reaction that someone of the group you are parodying might be – their feelings are secondary to you having a totally sweet Hallowe’en costume. Second, you are announcing to the world that you lack a third-grade level of creativity, and a first-grade grasp of tact.
There are millions of costumes out there that don’t play into stereotypes or scare up the ghosts of our racist past. When you decide not to dress as one of those millions, and instead go for a cheap gag, you’re saying something else too, but I’m too polite to spell it out.
Happy Hallowe’en, unless you’re planning on ignoring this advice, in which case I say:
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