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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You mean I can’t get dressed up as a Vulcan this year?
A friend of mine, in a deliberate poke in the eye of the unreconstructed Southern segregationists, dressed up as a Confederate cavalry officer one year, and two others dressed as enlisted men. Everyone thought it quite funny, in an ironic way: we don’t think the Confederate States of America ever had black men in its army’s officer corps, much less one in charge of white troopers.
Lol you would definitely be correct in that assumption.
“Wow do I ever not care about what your intention is.”
Thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you. The idea of giving people a free pass for not “intending” the harmful consequences of their words and actions sends me ballistic, and it is all too rare to come across support for the idea that each person is responsible for what they say and do, not for what they intend.
One year in college I went to an event as Jesus, I had the hair and beard to pull it off. So a robe, sandals, and a cross made out of two big pieces of wood and I was ready to go. Won a prize too.
I expect this costume is offensive to some people, but probably isn’t covered by your PSA. Those likely to be offended are those with the power, so marginalization doesn’t really come in to it (despite their protestations of oppression). I also think that dressing as a mythical historical figure is offensive like drawing a stick figure and naming it Mohammed is offensive. Do you find my thinking off base here?
For the record, Im going out this year in the same costume I wore last year: my ‘Cold Dad’ costume. (Son is going to be Obi Wan Kenobi, which is a big moral step up from Anakin Skywalker of last year.)
Cold Dad is a classic.
I had a friend who did likewise, and even built a great giant cross to carry out to the Halloween street party. Unfortunately, it was the Halloween after 9/11, so the security people weren’t allowing anyone to hold anything, so they told Jesus he had to go back to his dorm room and leave his cross behind.
I appreciate this post a lot because It’s an issue which I’ve struggled to come to terms with. I have a hard time accepting that kids who dress up as ninjas are doing anything wrong, or that their parents are doing anything wrong by letting them.
I won’t say I’m convinced, but this post is well reasoned and frames the argument well.
Is it? I didn’t realize that ninjas were inherently a stereotype, but then again I am into pencil and paper RPGS so I may have a slightly more skewed outlook into that. I view ninjas in the same light as I would someone wanting to dress up as a middle ages knight, or a spartan hoplite
Ninjas have been on other people’s lists of costumes which are unacceptable due to issues of race. Which is perhaps another hurdle I have when dealing with this–that different people hold different beliefs on what constitutes crossing the line. Do we need to adhere to the beliefs of the person who is most strict on this issue, or is there some kind of logic independent of the feelings of individuals which can be applied?
I’ve never understood the ninja one, because there’s no negative stereotype (to my knowledge) associated with it (and ninjas are pop-culture enough that they aren’t really closely associated with Japan or Japanese people), but I’d avoid it all the same simply because I can see it being dicey ground. I wanted to be Afro Samurai this year, but I don’t have a gi.
There is no ‘hard and fast’ rule about this issue. If you really want to dress in blackface you won’t get arrested, which is really the only practical rule restricting any costume choice. You just have to decide how much you care about avoiding hurt feelings, or propagating stereotypes. And if someone tells you explicitly “please don’t use this as a costume,” then that’s pretty clear.
@Crommunist: How is “Afro samurai” not racist? One of these PSA posters is japanese woman holding a photo of a geisha. Is geisha racist because it’s also sexist but Afro samurai would not be because samurai aren’t associated with prostitution (only an oppressive, exclusive noble class). I guess to be safe everyone needs to be a comic book hero.
Afro Samurai is a graphic novel and film, and has no connection whatsoever to any stereotype about anybody (except Samuel L. Jackson and the RZA, I guess).
And yes, the issue about Geishas has to do with the exoticization of Asian women as submissive sex objects. Nobody marginalizes Japanese men by making samurai references.
One of my all-time favorites was when my Afro-American daughter-in-law did Halloween as a Klansman, and here in small-town West Texas. Quite a few (white) people got VERY uptight until they saw her hands…..
It scared up the ghost of our racist past, all right, but only to beat the living crap out of it.
That one would still bother me as a Hallowe’en costume, regardless of who’s under the hood. Maybe it’s a situational thing, but there’s a difference between Dave Chapelle subverting the image of the Klan in a television show and someone doing it for a Hallowe’en costume. As a protest, sure. I still think there’s way too much room for error there, especially if she’s walking down a street or is across the room and someone doesn’t see her hands. Then it’s just someone dressed as a race terrorist in Texas… it loses its clever aspect and just becomes frightening.
So does that mean I can’t wear a costume like this?
“Have a nice day”:
Kidding aside, it’s amazing that some people can’t grasp the concept of good taste, even if bigotry isn’t involved.
An additional thought: Where would our blogger stand on a costume like “hooker nuns” or a priest costume like the one in the linked photo?
A costume like that makes me check who’s in the room before I laugh.
When the Belgium report came out, detailing the abuse that these men and women went through at the hands of trusted authority figures, the priest abuse jokes immediately stopped being funny to me. I can appreciate the merit of black humour, I just don’t find this particular issue to be a laughing matter. Taking the piss out of the church is one thing, but it’s hard not to see this as trivializing of victims of rape, which makes me uncomfortable.
The whole issue really boils down to whether or not you care about hurting people. If you do, then you take some time to consider the potential effect of your action on others. There is no perfect method of determining what costumes are “safe” and which ones aren’t, but with the sheer number of clever, witty, and even edgy things you can be without buying into stereotypes or making light of serious issues, I often question people’s motivations when they choose their costumes.
The only problem I have with the campaign is I think it will be ineffective. The people who find such costumes funny or clever either won’t care that they’re offensive or consider that to be a point in their favor.
I read the thread on the OWS protests in Oakland right before I read this one. So of course I crammed two thoughts together:
“We regret any bruises and broken bones we may have inadvertently caused to those standing in the way of our tear gas, rubber bullets, and batons. We intended to enforce their health and safety!”
I saw this campaign promoted and being discussed on Tumblr last week, and I saw the merit in it and forwarded it along (as you do on Tumblr.) As the thoughts have been percolating in my head, though, I feel like…well, I feel like a white person trying to understand a worldview I don’t have to think about often. While I’m not in any way wanting sympathy for the plight of trying to shed my privilege and see where the lines are drawn, still–this shit’s hard!
Is the line that a white guy can’t have a Barack Obama costume (wearing a suit, perhaps a presidential seal somewhere, etc) or that he can’t wear blackface as part of it? Could I still dress up as a geisha as long as I was conscious to go for historical accuracy (i.e. performer, not prostitute) and avoid stereotypes of Asian women (especially never utter any phrases made popular by Stanley Kubrick movies?)
Or is the point just *think first*?
The point is indeed to “think first”, and also listen when people say “Hey, don’t fuckin’ dress in blackface.” There’s a LOT of articles out there explaining exactly why blackface isn’t okay, and why dressing like a Geisha isn’t okay, and why warpaint and feathered headdresses aren’t okay. They’re not hard to find, and yet every year it’s the same debate.
And considering the number of costumes you could choose that don’t involve appropriation of culture or racial stereotypes, my question remains “why do you have to dress in that costume?” Even if you decide to go as a different movie star every year, or a different PRESIDENT every year, you’d still be well into midlife before you had to use blackface. Obama’s a terrible costume anyway – he’s just a regular-looking guy. Do Chester A. Arthur – that guy had some wicked mutton chops!
In pondering any possible response to your question (“why that costume?”), I countered them all with, “Is that more important than hurting others?” and found myself with no ground to stand on. I feel ashamed to have taken so long to get there.
Thanks for the post.
Shame is definitely not what I’m going for – you should be glad that you’ve figured out a new technique for better dealing with those around you. Getting over racism/sexism/homophobia is a process that requires effort and thoughtful consideration – we’re just at different places on the journey (at least wrt racism – in all likelihood you’ve got a better nose for sexism than I do), and you’re taking one step forward.
A year after Obama was elected, someone rightwingnut in the US asked why it was offensive to compare Obama to a monkey but not offensive to compare George Bu**sh** to a chimp.
That statement was pure political gainsaying, but could also be a valid point. Some people can legitimately claim they find “Bush v Chimp” offensive while others see no offense in it at all because there are no racial overtones. There are no winners on that one.
White people don’t have the historical baggage of being compared to apes and other sub-human creatures that comes along with comparison of a black president to a monkey. I don’t see any real validity to the point – even a casual glance at the history of racism in the USA should be enough to illustrate that fact.
I should have worded that better.
The intent of the rightwingers I spoke of wasn’t to legitimize or promote racist garbage. Their intent was to silence criticism of Bush by saying comparisons of both Bush and Obama to primates were equally offensive.
I hope I’m not making things worse by saying that.
No not at all. It’s important to unpack these kinds of statements.
Even still, it’s the issue of “equally offensive” that I think is flawed. They’re not equally offensive. One is a dig at Bush’s intelligence, the other is a dig both at Obama’s intelligence and race. Considering the myriad of ways in which you can call someone stupid without being racist, making Obama-ape comparisons is lazy insensitivity that makes me question the intent of the speaker. Call Obama stupid, by all means, if that’s their wish. But they shouldn’t pretend as though there isn’t another component to that allusion.
What would be your response to young, brown skinned Hezbollah supporters marching with fake explosive vests in support of actual suicide bombers? Or Hezbollah members marching in formation with real explosive vests? I don’t remember any cries of racism at the time. There are differences. Skin color and location to start with. They also weren’t engaged in parody. They were threatening violence by way of shrapnel spread randomly through a crowd.
If the Arab community feels insulted by someone producing a parody of actual behavior by an actual Arab then they need to own the shame and insult because Arab suicide bombers are indeed quite real. The blood and bodies they leave behind are quite real. The cloying coppery smell and feel of vaporized blood suspended in the air is quite real. If they chose to accept that the both Arabs and non-Arabs alike can wear the headdress and garb, and anyone can potentially wear a suicide vest, in effect ignoring the insult, they might just see it as a commentary about violent times.
Some of this reminds me of a black man asked what he would do if a white man brought out a heap of fried chicken and watermelon and started eating it in front of the crowd during a civil right protest. His response:’Ask if I could have some’. Sometimes it is better to simply not ‘get’ the insult.
Humanity should feel insulted by suicide bombers, whatever their cause, nationality, or race. They are an embarrassment. Some guy attempting an insult by way of a harmless parody is not a big deal. Parody in support of actual suicide bombers is much more troubling.
That Arabs acting as suicide bombers is so common an event that it has become a racial linkage exploitable by parody is lamentable. I’m not sure you can blame the white guy with poor taste in costume selection for that.
This is a classic derailing technique – “let’s focus on the important issues – suicide bombing is more important than racism!” The guy in the picture is not making a commentary on the hideousness of suicide bombing; he is using a racist stereotype to get a cheap laugh. The costume completely fails to recognize the fact that many Arab Americans face brutal and ongoing discrimination based on nothing more than their skin colour, which is the point of the ad.
And no, it’s never better to just ignore racism. It might be more advantageous to those who are rarely the victims of racism to simply pretend it doesn’t exist, but for the rest of us who have to deal with the consequences of those stereotypes it is not our job to just “get over it”.
Art, I’m presuming that you are white and male (based on the privileged language in your comment). Does the white community need to “own” the fact that rape by white men is “indeed quite real”? And if I were somehow able to craft a costume wherein I went as “a rapist” but went out of my way to dress in ‘whiteface’, are you saying that there’s nothing wrong with that? If that’s your position, then you’re nuts. White men don’t rape for reason of their whiteness, and suicide bombers don’t commit their atrocities (nice use of emotive “reasoning” in your second paragraph, by the way) for reason of their Arab-ness. Forging the equation between the two is based on lazy, racist stereotyping. I absolutely can and do blame the guy, not for his “poor taste”, but for his refusal to consider the hurtful way he’s exploiting a serious social problem as a joke.
So you’re saying it’s cool to dress as a southern militia member for halloween because, hey, if the American community feels insulted by someone producing a parody of actual behavior by an actual American then they need to own the shame and insult because American militia members are indeed quite real.
Perhaps I should dress as an IRA member when I visit my Irish neighbours this weekend? After all, the IRA were actual Irish people and they just need to embrace the shame, right? Surely there’s no way in which the character I dress as could have had any negative effects on them or their families?
Speaking as a middle class, white, male college student, I’ve gotta say that’s some poor thinking. The annoying thing is that I said something fairly similar a couple of years ago and completely failed to see the narrow minded bullshittery of it.
Yes, suicide bombers exist, yes many of them are arabic (I suspect we could find examples from many other walks of life if we were to look closely) but that does not mean that all arabs are suicide bombers, that they support them or that they are not speaking out against them.
To dress as a arab with what looks like a dishcloth for a ghutra is already thoughtless stereotyping, to add a bomb to it is just disgusting. Intentional or not, the message is “Arabs, yeah? They’re all suicide bombers,” which, hopefully I shouldn’t need to point this out, isn’t true. They call it slander when you say such things about a single person… not sure what the word is when you apply it to all people of a racial group, except prejudice of course.
Doesn’t that drive you NUTS? I’m the same way with sexism – I think of the dickish stuff I said just a couple years ago and want to jump backwards through time and kick my own ass.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been over to Regresty but a few months back, the author wrote about a halloween costume debacle in which her costume really offended a minority group to which she is not a member and how her original reaction was to be defensive but ultimately, she realized that her intentions, her past, who she’s knows and what she’s done on behalf of this group is irrelevant.
The truth is that when you have a position of privilege — no matter your intention — making a joke at the expense of a group who doesn’t share your privilege is your bad, it’s no one else’s bad for not knowing who you are or what you meant, it’s your bad. That’s the “baggage” that comes with privilege and you should just be glad that you have been fortunate enough that the worst thing you got out of the deal is a feeling of contrition instead of the actual discrimination the group you are mocking, has faced all along. Shit is just easier for you in this particular instance, and you don’t get a free pass because you didn’t realize what you did was hurtful.
But it’s also worth noting that we all will do things wrong and we will all have missteps and we’ve all been young and stupid and eager to please in idiotic ways. Better to just own up to your mistake and then…you know…not do it again.
Those posters are great. I still have to tell (white) friends and co-workers, “no, you can’t wear blackface. That would not be cool.” It’s hard to believe it’s 2011 sometimes.
While I agree overall, I think you may be over generalizing a bit here, one might say stereotyping. Some of the most ironic, overtly bigotted comments I’ve seen regarding (other) minorities, racial and gender, have come from minorities.
When I think back to Prop8 in CA, there was a huge voting block from the black religious community that supported that, completely oblivious to the irony of supporting discrimination against a minority they didn’t like.
We’re all guilty of it to various degrees. I would have hoped that those who have, and still do, experience bigotry on a regular basis would be more aware of it in themselves.
OK, on four of the five posters I’m with you 100%. However, the one included above, with some dumbass dressed up as a suicide bomber, gives me conflicting feelings. On one hand, I understand that 99% of American Muslims are not affiliated with the kind of hate-filled religious extremism the costume mocks, and that from their point of view this is a negative and false stereotype that has caused them real harm. On the other hand, there’s this post from Ophelia Benson:
Which in turn quotes Bahram Soroush:
“For example, how can you roll out the red carpet for the Islamic executioners from Iran, treat them as ‘respectable diplomats’ and at the same time dodge the issue that this government executes people, stones people to death, carries out public hangings, and that this is happening in the 21st century. It’s a question of how to justify that. So, if you say that cultures are relative; if you say that in Iran they stone people to death and they veil women because it is their culture, your conscience then is clean.”
Disallowing criticism of other cultures also causes real harm to real people. Cultures aren’t just different but equally good ways of living; some of them do have practices that cause mild to severe harm to millions of people every year. We need to be able to say that. Now, you make the point above that a stupid halloween costume is not meaningful cultural criticism in the first place, which is true. However, given the U.S.’s long-standing history of turning a blind eye to human rights abuses in Islamic countries under the guise of cultural relativism, and the recent history of violent reactions to criticism on the part of those in said Islamic countries… any statement indicating that Islamic culture is off limits from criticism or parody raises a red flag for me.
First off, suicide bombing isn’t part of Islamic culture any more than wife-beating is a part of European culture. Second, criticizing suicide bombers should be done in an unequivocal way, not one that trivializes the practice in such a way as to make it an object of fun. Third, there is nothing about that costume that suggests the guy is Muslim. Arab, certainly, but not Muslim. Fourth, even if we accepted the costume as a criticism, what does it say? “Islam is bad because of suicide bombers”?
This costume in no way constitutes a criticism of Islamic culture, and it kind of makes me scratch my head that you see “don’t make racist stereotypical statements about Arabs/Muslims” as being another way of saying “Islam is off-limits to criticism”.
I also disagree with your characterization of the history of the United States as turning a blind eye due to cultural relativism. Its stance on human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia aren’t because George Bush and the neocon set are cultural relativists.
There may be some semantic clarification needed here. I assume your point is that most Muslims are not terrorists, and similarly most Europeans are not wife-beaters. OK, I’m with you there. Nonetheless, both are activities that take place within the respective cultures. They are part of them, not activities that somehow take place outside of any cultural context.
I am basically in agreement here.
Obviously “guy with a bomb wearing a keffiyeh” is intended to convey “Islamic terrorist” and not “Arab terrorist of unknown religious affiliation”. There is nothing intrinsically Muslim about either of those attributes (nor, for that matter, anything intrinsically Arab about them), sure, but what the costume is intended to communicate is pretty clear, IMO.
I think you are very optimistic about semantic clarity. When somewhere around 90% of the members of an ethnic group share the same religion, it can be damned hard to separate racism and criticism of that religion. Just look, for instance, at France’s “burqa ban”. Which is the French government acting against there, an ethnicity, a culture, or a religion?
Cultural relativism does provide a nice sheet to throw over the whole thing and make it look respectable, though. Hence my use of the word “guise”…
It’s pretty obvious to me too, but somehow I don’t think we see it the same way.
There’s that word again: intend. Like I said in the body of this post – intent is meaningless, particularly when it comes from a member of a privileged group. I might not intend to marginalize Jews by trivializing the Holocaust for the purposes of parody (as Prince Harry did a few years back), but that doesn’t somehow magically erase the effect of my actions.
Let’s pretend he dressed up in blackface as a jailbird, with the whole prison outfit and everything, and I excused it by saying the following:
When somewhere around 90% of the members of the prison population share the same race, it can be damned hard to separate racism and criticism of crime.
Can you then see why I don’t see any merit whatsoever in your argument? The costume is racist. It’s intended to be racist. It is not a criticism of Islam any more than blackface is a criticism of aspects of the black community that someone might consider harmful. Saying “well you’re just saying that black people are beyond criticism because otherwise it’s racist” is not a legitimate argument, and nor is saying that dressing like an Arab suicide bomber isn’t necessarily racist. Of course it is. There are a myriad of ways to criticize Islam without deputizing racism into one’s argument – this costume fails to do that (if indeed, one would consider it a criticism of Islam, which I don’t).
I agree with the fact that cultural relativism is bad. However, that’s completely irrelevant to the issue here – nobody is saying that the costume is bad because you mustn’t criticize Muslims. I’ve done my level best to explain why the costumes are racist, and why that is the source of my objection.
This troubles me a bit. If all we want to understand about a communication or communicative act is how the receiver perceives it, OK, the intent of the sender doesn’t matter (or, at least, doesn’t matter directly). However, this seems like a rather narrow view. It suggests that we wish to deliberately avoid understanding the entire situation.
I’m not convinced that this analogy works, but I am wary of the “First Rule of Holes”…
I guess all I can say is that I do not consider either wearing a keffiyeh or blowing oneself up to be a racial attribute. Obviously my opinion on the matter is not any kind of Absolute Arbiter of Truth, but I’m not too comfortable with the opposite notion that it should be rejected out of hand on the basis that I’m a privileged white dude, either.
Do you understand the way in which your privilege is operating in this situation, though? I’m not dismissing your positions because of who you are, I’m dismissing them because they neglect important factors. It’s funny that you say “deliberately avoid understanding the entire situation”, because from where I’m sitting that’s exactly what you’re doing. One side of this issue is being told “avoid wearing costumes that make jokes out of racial stereotypes”, and the other is being told “the exploitation and ridicule of your culture is less important than the good times of privileged people, so your feelings of pain and the resulting racism you experience are illegitimate”.
As this issue wanders in the back of my head, it occurs to me that I should probably make it clearer that I’m not interested in defending some dumbass wearing a terrorist costume for Halloween. It really isn’t something I would do, encourage, or defend. My concern is how this smaller issue ties into larger issues regarding when it is or is not appropriate to criticize, satirize, parody, etc., the genuinely harmful aspects of other cultures. I take it you don’t see a connection between the two or don’t think it’s important, but that’s where I’m coming from.
The issue is that there is no connection between the two. Dressing up as an Arab suicide bomber as opposed to an American suicide bomber isn’t a principled stand against destructive practices in Islam. Even if it was, that kind of nuanced position is completely obscured by the fact that it’s extremely racist (not to mention the fact that the guy has a beer in his hand). The message, as received by the majority of people who see the costume, is that Muslims (and who can tell the difference between them and those other brown-skinned people) are dangerous suicide bomb-happy lunatics. The message as received by Arab people is that they are not welcome except as objects of either fear or ridicule.
Well, for my part I certainly do not intend (yes, that word again) to suggest that harm caused to the Arab and/or Islamic community by negative stereotypes doesn’t exist, is inconsequential, or is illegitimate. That’s why I explicitly acknowledged that, yes, this is a real problem and I’m aware of it, in my initial post on this thread. From my point of view, I’m being told “avoid wearing costumes that make jokes out of racial stereotypes”, and I’m saying, “I’m with you about 90%, but I’m uneasy about the boundary between ‘jokes about racial stereotypes’ and ‘criticism or satire of truly harmful practices of other cultures'”. I guess I’m not sure how privilege is involved or how this implies illegitimacy of the concerns of less privileged groups.
There are a number of ways to parody the practice of suicide bombing. Choosing the one day of the year when most people are dressed up, not in protest or to make some grand statement about values and ideals, but in humor or playfulness, to make your deep and philosophical point about the dangers of dogmatic religious extremism, is just asking to be misunderstood. I think it’s a bit disingenuous to play like halloween costumes are a vehicle to peaceful protest.
Would you dress up in traditional clothing from Rwanda and darken your face to protest genocide? I hope not. Genocide is a terrible, unjustifiable practice often based in religious extremism, but a halloween costume isn’t going to fix that problem.
It does make sense to keep open discourse, including parody, of extremist and horrendous behavior but portraying gross racial stereotypes to do it is an inefficient and damaging way to do so.
I am in agreement with most of your post. As I’ve stated above, I’m not suggesting that this particular costume makes any kind of coherent statement about politics or religion, or that Halloween costumes are an appropriate venue for such statements.
I guess I’m just unusually sensitive to the potential for “you can’t make fun of culture X” to be used to hide or legitimize harmful actions or beliefs. When an unquestionably harmful action like suicide bombing is involved, this kind of reasoning makes me uncomfortable… whether the specific context is one where cultural or religious criticism or satire is appropriate, or even being attempted, or not.
I understand the point you are trying to make and I suspect you are making it strictly as a theoretical argument, not because you already have your suicide bomber costume ready for the 31st but I still think you are looking at this the wrong way. Think about all the occasions when it is appropriate for a white person to be in blackface. The number, I suspect, is close to or at zero. The only times I think it might be arguably possible to justify it is in making fun of the sort of white person who would wear blackface. That is, it’s not acceptable because blackface is acceptable it’s acceptable because it’s meant to mock someone ignorant enough to be in blackface.
You should consider any racially/culturally (broadly speaking) based costume to be in the same category as blackface. There are ample ways to make fun of, say, Michael Vick and his (former?) support of dog fighting without dressing in blackface. There are also ample ways to make fun of suicide bombers and other extremist without dressing in middle eastern garb.
So to your point, I am for mocking extremist behavior, I am not for dressing up as an entire culture or changing my skin color to do so.
I wasn’t originally going to post online about the fact that a white American colleague of mine wore blackface to a Halloween party thrown for my graduate department last year. She’d come as one of my Indian colleagues. The Indian colleague, who is probably unfamiliar with the history of minstrel shows, thought it was hilarious. So did the rest of the largely international crowd.
As the sole black American present, I didn’t find it funny at all. However– and this is key– I didn’t object. I made no comment. With effort, I maintained an indifferent facial expression, in order to withstand the scrutiny of those waiting scornfully for the chance to advise me to develop what they mistake for a sense of humor. And I never reported her to my university. I simply avoid this person as much as I can. How’s that for the tyranny of political correctness?
That’s a tough position to be in. I just got back from walking around downtown where I saw people dressed as every single one of the things those posters asked people not to. But what am I going to do – shake total strangers violently and tell them to stop being racist pricks? It sucks that you were in that position with people you work with.
I should clarify that this colleague colored her face dark brown instead of true black. I still thought it was dumb.
Wow, so we can’t have fun because a few people are butthurt over a costume?
Time for them to get over it, already.
Plus, if it’s such an offensive stereotype (the Muslim homicide bomber), well, it’s up to the Muslims to change it… BY NOT BOMBING PEOPLE.
Wow, congrats: you’re a dick, and you weren’t listening. Proud of you, bro.
The thing is, that you don’t have a right to not be offended. At least that’s how it is here in the US.
And hey, if someone’s offended, whatever, they don’t have to buy/wear the costume, and they’re perfectly free to say, “Hey, I find that offensive.” But they do NOT have the right to say, “You can’t wear that because I’m offended.” It’s First Amendment 101.
Also, my original point stands. It wouldn’t be a stereotype if it wasn’t, on some level, true. Every single time there’s a “suicide” bombing — every single time — it’s a Muslim who’s done it. So the solution, obviously, is for Muslims to put a stop to their crazies. Just like it’s the responsibility of Christers to rein in their crazies. (Which, I’d like to note, they haven’t — they just whinge about how such-and-such “isn’t a true Christian.”)
But noooo, we can’t have people taking responsibility for their coreligionists, why, that would be admitting that the bombers are Muslims, and we all know that no true Muslim would commit a homicide bombing…
So, hey, go ahead, be offended all you want. Get those panties bunched up. I won’t stop you. Wouldn’t dream of it. Just don’t go telling me what I can and can’t do/say/wear because some people are going to get all butthurt and whiny about it. There are plenty of things that I find offensive, but I’m not going around telling people, “You can’t do that because I find it offensive.” I’d like the same respect from others — though it’s painfully clear that the people behind these posters have no fucking respect for others and only want to dictate what is “acceptable” based on their own thin-skinned knee-jerk reactions to JOKES.
Seriously, some of y’all need to grow a sense of humor.
Regarding the Islamic terrorist costume, I have a thought.
Terrorism is scary. Terror is right in the name. Terrorists which target the U.S. have been very open about who they are, what they say motivates them, and what they want to do to the peoples of the U.S. It is scary. One of the ways in which people deal with being scared is to make light of the object of their fears. And that is an acceptable and appropriate response to fear. Certainly a better response than open hatred or violence, though perhaps sometimes it crosses some other line. Perhaps this costume is one of those times.
I am not saying that the costume is not racist, or that it should be socially acceptable. I’m not educated enough, nor do I have enough perspective, to understand the issues at work there. However, when considering the issue in the manner outlined above, I have a difficult time standing up and saying “That absolutely is racist, it is unacceptable, and people should be ashamed.”
I also take the position that as many things as possible should be socially accepted as okay. So perhaps that puts me out of step with most.
So you think it’s legitimate for someone who is afraid of Mexican immigration to put on a poncho, dirty up their face and go for Hallowe’en as “Pedro the siesta-taking orange salesman”? The fact that some subset of Muslims are terrorists is not sufficient grounds to equate terrorism with Islam. It would be like saying that the KKK represents American Christians. I’m terrified of the KKK – it’s therefore reasonable for me to cast all Christians as Klansmen? No – it’s using a cheap and lazy (and racist) stereotype that puts every Arab person (the vast majority of whom aren’t terrorists) in the position of having to justify not only their own existence, but the existence and practices of people they don’t know and don’t approve of.
Even if they hurt people and can be easily avoided by simply wearing a different Hallowe’en costume? Maybe the reason you’re “out of step with most” is because your position doesn’t make sense.
Honestly, I don’t understand why people have such a hard time with this issue. It seems fairly elementary to me: don’t exploit racist stereotypes for fun – they aren’t funny. End of story. It’s not poignant political commentary, it’s not a brave stand against cultural relativism, it’s not a nuanced position outlining the co-opting of Islam by terrorists – it’s a fucking HALLOWE’EN costume!
On the first issue, I accept that you’ve made a valid argument. My statement was based on an insufficient examination of the situation, and you have corrected that. Thank you. I can now accept, without qualification, that the costume is racist.
I like that I can voice my thoughts in the comments here, and receive a thoughtful response from you. It allows me to become better informed than I would be otherwise.
As to the second point, it honestly sounds as though you’re lashing out at me because you found my first statement offensive. I believe we, as a society, should not be so quick to judge each other, and I stated that fact. I did it as an admission that my eagerness not to judge might cause me to overlook instances of real harm. I am aware that it happens.
Telling me my position doesn’t make sense is a rather extreme statement when I didn’t even clarify what my position was.
I’m sorry. My reaction was an over-one. I am not lashing out because I am offended by your statement, I am lashing out because I am frustrated at having to explain what I feel is a relatively simple position over and over again, facing arguments that I thought I had already dealt with. However, I set this blog up as a place where people can express even controversial opinions and be met respectfully, and lashing out the way I did undermines that effort. You are not at fault, and I am sorry for coming down on you like that – it’s not fair of me to do that.
For what it’s worth, I appreciate you taking the time to explain these relatively simple facts even though it frays at your nerves.
Looking back on my own experience, I can say that people who bitterly dismissed my thoughts and questions only caused me to cling to my privilege security blanket. I understand now that they were frustrated by explaining the same things over and over again. However, at the time, all I saw were people who refused to even acknowledge my arguments, instead responding with phrases like “shut up and listen” or “check your privilege” (at the time, I had never even heard the term privilege used in that context.)
It wasn’t until a select few people took the time to actually talk to me that I began to understand what privilege was, and why I was wrong. I had a wonderful three-month email exchange with a woman in England who helped me work through my misconceptions and assumptions with calm, thoughtful discussion. Without her I still wouldn’t care about modern issues relating to sexism or racism, because before her everyone who spoke out about those issues treated me like shit.
tl;dr, the people who make a difference are the people who take the time to talk to people who don’t understand.
So again, thank you for helping me with that in the comment above.
You know, I think I overreacted earlier. No… I know I did. It’s just… when people start going on and on about this and that is offensive to my culture and blah blah blah you shouldn’t buy/wear/say/do such and such, it kind of hits my Berserk Button. As far as I’m concerned, nothing is sacred, nothing is immune to criticism or parody. And that’s the way it should be.
Now, I’ve gone and had a think (and a cigarette), and you’re right. The costume can easily be perceived as racist or offensive. I can see why some people would be upset about it.
However, I still maintain that the costume is, in fact, protected as free expression under the First Amendment, and that there is no right to not be offended. (In fact, such a “right” would be inherently anti-American, as freedom of speech is one of the principles our country was founded on.)
And therein lies the beauty of the First Amendment. I have the right to be offensive. You have the right to criticize me for it. And everything — everything — is fair game: religious beliefs, politics, furries, science fiction, you name it, someone has an opinion on it and someone else is offended by it and yet another person is free to say, “I don’t care.” The fact that we can have a dialogue about these things is what makes it so freakin’ great.
I still feel that, to some degree, moderate Muslims (and moderate Christians, as well) aren’t doing enough to keep their respective extremists in line and under control.
I don’t understand why the First Amendment is relevant to this discussion. I am not calling for people to be locked up or prosecuted for wearing a Hallowe’en costume. I am not saying that there should be legal consequences of any kind. I’m saying that these kinds of costumes are hurtful, and so you shouldn’t wear them (or you should have a really good fucking reason for wearing them). If you don’t care about being racist, or marginalizing a minority group, then fine do what you want, but know that you’re being a racist asshole. If you can live with that, then let your freak flag fly.
Additionally, I’m really not in need of a lecture about the First Amendment. I’ve made defense of free speech one of the central planks of this blog’s platform. I’ve explicitly defended hate speech as recently as a week ago. I’m quite well-acquainted with the arguments on both sides of the issue. Free speech issues get brought up in discussions like this all the time – they are as irrelevant here as when Dr. Laura Schlessinger uses them to defend her on-air racist tirade that resulted in her resignation.
As far as the “moderate Muslims aren’t controlling their crazies enough”, that is completely irrelevant to this conversation. This costume is not a political protest against radical Islam – it’s a costume intended to be funny. If someone showed up at a protest rally defending the right of people to be racist and wore a costume like this, then maybe you’d have a point. In this context it’s a red herring that derails the conversation.
I appreciate that you’re willing to revise your position after having a think on it.
This isn’t about law, this is about not being a jerk. You have a right to picket the funerals of people with signs that say god hates them but that doesn’t make it the right thing to do. This isn’t a legal discussion it is a discussion of ethics and morals and living with your fellow human beings.
Like many other aspects of life, it’s possible to unwittingly do something offensive but when it’s pointed out to you, the answer is not to talk about your legal rights but instead to decide if the message you unintentionally gave is the one you want to intentionally continue with.
I would hope “racist” is not the message you intentionally want to portray.
Hey, I agree the costume is in poor taste.
So when Dave Chappelle powders his face white and does a stereotypical white guy comedy bit using every single white person stereotype, it is completely fine and it’s not racist, everyone laughs (including me), and there is no uproar. But once a white person dresses up as another minority, all hell breaks loose… It seems like people will take offense to anything these days regardless of context, so I hope people just don’t give a fuck anymore who they offend when doing things as a joke.
I’m sure you think this is just a super-duper knockout of an argument, but would it surprise you to learn that a) every race-baiting troll has used this line of ‘reasoning’ before, and b) there are hundreds (if not thousands) of websites devoted to explaining exactly why the argument is flawed?
Seriously, this is the “then why are there still monkeys?” of race arguments.
So Ad hominem and appeal to majority? Never needing to cite anything I guess I can just state there are hundreds (if not thousands) of websites that have refuted those explanations… Taking offense is subjective, so you really can’t make an objective argument that something is less offensive..
Aaaaand it doesn’t know what an ‘ad hominem’ is. Or an appeal to majority, apparently (since I didn’t say anything about the proportion of people making the argument).
I was just asking if you were aware and simply trolling, or if you genuinely didn’t know that your comment is a complete stereotype. I’m still not sure.
Actually it was Ad hominem because you used ridicule instead of refuting my central point of what is the actual difference and how it could be objectively more offensive, and it was an appeal to majority because you did mention the proportion of the people saying “hundreds if not thousands”.
I’m not trolling and I believe that a formal objective argument can’t even be made about this because it is purely subjective… No matter what you say, if I was in a certain mood I could always be more self righteous and “more offended”.
And it doesn’t know the difference between ‘number’ and ‘proportion’ either. This is going to be taxing.
Ad hominem and ridicule are not the same thing. I didn’t even attempt to refute your argument – I just asked if you knew how ridiculously common it is. It’s pretty clear that you don’t. The reason I asked is because the number of things I’d have to explain to you to get you to understand why you’re wrong is not trivial, and people who make this kind of argument are usually very reluctant to listen, preferring instead to derail arguments and offer up straw men (like, for example, saying that this boils down to an issue of which is ‘more offensive’, which has absolutely nothing to do with anything). I suspect you of trolling because, as you say, “no matter what (I) say”, your position is fixed.
Your argument has been offered in every single race debate since the dawn of human speech. “How come it’s okay to make fun of white people, but if I call you a spear-chucking porch monkey, all of a sudden you get offended?” Compare what you’ve said, and the butthurt whine of Christians when they complain about “religious oppression” from atheists. This is what you sound like when making this complaint to anyone who understands the concept of white privilege.
Is your position that people don’t have a right to be offended when their culture is mocked and they are further marginalized by an uncaring majority, or that you simply don’t care if things are racist?
I would find someone saying “white redneck trailer trash dead beat cracker” said in a malicious way could be just as offensive as saying “spear chucking porch monkey” in a malicious way. You are conflating “oppression” and “offensive” in your Christian example. I could say “All Christians are pedophiles” in a malicious way and that could be offensive to Christians just as if a Christian said “All atheists are evil baby eaters” in a malicious way could be offensive to atheists. Do you have an objective metric on how offensive something is?
My position is that taking offense isn’t a one way street and almost anyone can get offended by anything (offense being subjective). We should care more if there is a malicious intent rather than if people are taking offense.
And what if they were not said in a malicious way? What if they were said as a joke?
I’m not sure why you keep harping on this “objective metric of offense” issue. I haven’t made any claims about something being “more offensive” or “less offensive”, nor have I claimed to be the arbiter of what things are offensive. I’m sure these are dynamite responses to something that somebody has said once, but they have nothing to do with this article.
This is a false dichotomy. It’s not as though people are “taking offense” because it’s fun and they like to get outraged. Racism, intentional or not, has consequences. The people who have to deal with those consequences are, not unrelatedly, usually those who are the targets of racism. Intent doesn’t magically remove those consequences, they just give the perpetrators of racism an excuse to claim that they’re not responsible.
It would depend on the individuals if it were a joke. It could be offensive or not offensive on either side.
Intent does matter as it can make the difference between racial hatred or making light of racial tensions. Every action has consequences, and intent changes how you interpret those actions/consequences. Making jokes and taking the piss out of each other can show that you are comfortable about race knowing that you don’t actually believe those things about each other while being silly. If I see a black person white powdered their face wearing a mustard stained wife beater and a mullet wig on halloween, I know he is just joking and same with a white person dressing as a black gangster.
The people behind this poster project are explicitly telling you that you are wrong. I realize that all this will be filtered through the rose-tinted glasses of white privilege, and that you’ve never asked a black person if they think blackface is funny (spoilers: we don’t), so I’m not too invested in whether or not you acknowlege that you’re wrong. What I will encourage you to do is recognize that like sexism, homophobia, classism, ableism, and any other kind of bigotry, racism is harmful regardless of the intent, and the onus is not on the vicitmized group to “get over it”.
You should also be aware that I am currently filling out a BINGO card for your arguments.
Craig, are you honestly saying that you see no difference between, say, a native american commenting on how funny it is that Europeans would go to already settled countries and claim they’ve “discovered it,” and a white person dressing in a cartoonish “native american” costume? I don’t want Godwin’s law to be enacted, but I think you can envision other examples where a group who has a long history of being systematically oppressed and often violently attacked, might get to decide where the line is drawn with funny as it pertains to their culture and you know what, white people dressing as any minority for humor is like a white person using the “n-word” (and please tell me you aren’t going to start justifying that too). It’s not funny. Your intention is irrelevant, especially if you are doing it in an open forum which is pretty much the only way a halloween costume is used.
Your “intentions” are not a get-out-of-being-a-dick-free card. If you didn’t “intend” to stalk that woman when you followed her home every night for a year, if you just meant it to be romantic, you are still a creepy stalker. If you didn’t intend to be culturally insensitive when you said you were going to “jew them down” at a board meeting, you were still culturally insensitive. Just because you were ignorant about how bad your choice of behavior or words is, doesn’t make you free and clear from responsibility.
But you know what? If you start overstepping your bounds with someone, she asks you to stop and you DO or if someone says “that phrase you used is deeply hurtful and you embarrassed our whole company” and you stop using it, that means you are a decent person who doesn’t just think like a 5 year old who cries every time he doesn’t get his way.
And you understand, that’s what it comes down to. For any person with a whiff of empathy it sounds downright petulant to hear a grown adult (I assume) throwing a fit over not being able to wear a costume that the vast majority of people will view as racist. You can argue about how objectively wrong it but white people have a long and ugly history of being objectively bad to minorities and we have an ongoing and unfair advantage in most aspects of our lives because we are white (that still exists, this isn’t ancient history, here). So instead of worrying about your right to dress as a minority, why don’t you shoot for worrying about something like race and gender equality. It seems like a better use of everyone’s time.
Thank you for posting this because I wouldn’t have found out about it on my own. I’m currently horrified because I made my daughter a geisha costume two years ago and had no idea it would be hurtful to anyone. I made it because I love kimono as an art form and have made hand-painted ones in the past so I was happy to make something I found beautiful. I can’t imagine my family ever using any of the other costumes shown on the posters, but the general sentiment behind all of them is something I will keep in mind in the future. Halloween is a great deal of fun for me as an amateur costume designer and I don’t want that fun coming at the expense of someone else.
I was just writing a comment in which I said that people who dress up for Halloween as Arabic suicide bombers, minstrel performers, Klan members, geishas, “Indians”, giant penises clutching bottles of lotion and boxes of tissue and other such costumes that are almost invariably as witless and tasteless are not celebrating in the spirit of the holiday. I know that this opinion is besides the major point of the blog entry. However, I mostly wanted to underscore the fact that my opinion doesn’t magically preclude anyone’s right, First Amendment or otherwise, to dress in any one of these costumes on Monday. I am sick of people conflating criticism with governmental censorship. (Though, to be fair, I inadvertently did this once, in a discussion of an event that didn’t involve identity issues at all.)
However, my original comment still seemed overly harsh in the wake of yours, even though it wasn’t directed at you. So I changed it to say that I appreciate your willingness to think about the general sentiment behind costumes. Plus, as someone who loves Halloween as an opportunity to make and wear extravagantly beautiful costumes, instead of as an occasion to randomly offend or discomfit reasonable people, I appreciate your understanding of Halloween as a holiday that’s supposed to be fun.
Crommunist, after reading this post and your subsequent comments, I have decided to favourite your blog and make it regular reading.
When your blog first appeared on this network, I was intrigued to see a someone examinining racism from a secular perspective, but I wasn’t sure if I’d be comfortable reading it because racial issues hit quite close to home for me. I’ve been burned time and time again by the internetz and as a result I’m cautious whenever this sensitive topic is raised.
I’m filled with admiration for the patience and clarity you’ve displayed on this thread. In response to people who have never experienced living as a racial minority, and whose knee-jerk response is to deny that discrimination exists, to downplay its magnitude, to accuse you of simply wanting to be offended because you derive some perverse pleasure from it, to do everything in their power to deny an unpleasant reality out of fear that it would cause them to reexamine some of their own attitudes… you have shown far greater stamina and resilience than I ever could have.
Thank you for what you’re doing, and keep up the good work. It is much appreciated. Those who want to be educated will benefit from your voice, and as for the others, if they stop being defensive and start listening objectively to people from different backgrounds, with different experiences, they might just learn a few things about their fellow human beings they never knew before.
The kind words are definitely appreciated. I am glad that you find something worthwhile here, and I will do my best to make this a place worth sticking around.
It’s that time of year again!
My neighbor mentioned her son wanted to go as Jimi Hendrix for Halloween this year. While I can’t imagine either of them being dumb enough to do it in blackface, how do I tell them it’s a bad idea?
Show them Bamboozled