Can Your Halloween Costume Be Racist, Even If You Aren’t? [Reader Forum]

In our most-commented post ever, readers dig deep into the rules of casual Halloween racism, in light of a viral new campaign by Ohio student group STARS.

By Channing Kennedy Oct 31, 2011

This past week, our pop culture blogger Jorge Rivas broke all previous records for number of comments on a post. His profile of Ohio student group STARS’ [poster campaign against casual Halloween racism]( has pulled in 300 comments at the time of this writing, and they’re still coming in. Jorge [credits](!/thisisjorge/status/130732648518795264) his use of a *Mean Girls* reference in the first graf. But also, STARS has come up with an incisive, impeccably done campaign that’s raising some tough new questions for a lot of people. Commenters on the post, many of them first-timers to Colorlines, arrived with some fundamental issues to address. Where is the line between funny and offensive, and who says where it is? Is this censorship? Where are the negative stereotypes about white people, and does white privilege exist when your whole family is broke? Is this campaign calling white people racist, and isn’t that a racial stereotype as well – and isn’t being a racist the worst thing to be? In the real world, how does a Halloween costume fuel systemic bigotry? These are issues that’ll be with us for many Halloweens to come, and we’re pleased to be hosting a (largely civil!) discussion of them. With no further ado, here’s a very small sample of what you had to say. **Joanna:** > I posted the graphic on my Facebook wall and was shocked by my friend’s responses. They were saying it was ridiculous and overly PC, basically implying it’s their right to appropriate these stereotypes for entertainment purposes. It’s a great campaign, but also eye-opening in a very disturbing way.? **Craig Berger:** > Perhaps the thing that many people seem to struggle with is the meaning and the feeling that comes from addressing the term “racist.” As a white person, raised that racism was absolutely disgusting, I grew up learning to recoil at everything that was labeled racist. The idea of racism was disgusting to the point that I never wanted to admit that I could be racist, and I started to view it as some rare, extraordinary thing. > > But after getting to know more people from diverse backgrounds and hearing their stories and going to college and grad school, I realize now that whether I like it or not, society is inherently racist. I benefit from many of my identities (being a white, heterosexual, man raised in a middle class, Christian household) because society treats me as normal, or the standard, while some of my friends who identify as African American, Latino, or Asian are viewed as “others.” > > So while racism is indeed a negative thing, it’s not as rare as we might think. We might not feel it or see it as much as white people because it’s hidden by our inherited privileges, but I am convinced that others who are not protected by society absolutely feel it. > > […] Given the exploitation of specific groups in society at the hands of white people, there is a unique, symbolic meaning found in the act of creating a caricature of those groups that isn’t found in mocking the groups … mentioned (vikings, cowboys, etc.), and to the groups who continue to be exploited and targeted in society, it’s painful. > > What makes this difficult for many white people to understand is their privilege, or the set of certain, unearned benefits bestowed upon them by society. In America, we are conditioned to view whiteness as normalcy, and so there are things as white people we experience that we don’t think twice about (the color of a Band-Aid, for example) that can be painful to other groups in society. > > I suppose the main thing from this is that no one is telling you whether or not you are “allowed” to do anything or not. If you’re reading this, I am guessing you’re fairly capable of making your own decisions. But I think what this campaign is asking all of us to do is stop and think about how our actions–which we often take for granted and fail to analyze anyway–might impact those around us who have differing experiences in life. And if you’re not sure how others’ experiences differ from yours, maybe that’s an opportunity to start listening and thinking.? **Tyrone Bhart:** > Thanks Craig for the critical analysis and lack of right or wrong judgement. It definitely helps me clarify the situation and empathizes with those who felt this campaign was necessary, as well as what they hoped to achieve.  > > However, in fairness, I think it would have had a greater impact had it included stereotypes from white cultures that are also harshly judged- perhaps a Catholic priest with a young boy, or an orthodox Jew, or even a US military soldier- you can’t say they have a great image to the majority of Americans. Heck, a KKK costume is equivalent to an Arab terrorist in my mind. I find that very offensive.  > > But in the end, part of what makes America so great is that we CAN dress up as these things and a discussion like this can occur because we have the freedom and cultural awareness to allow it- even though it may be uncomfortable from time to time.? > > […] What makes a “people” or a culture anyway? Is it not a culture until it’s repressed or vilified or slandered? I think there is an entire culture of suburban white kids who listen to pop music and spend their weekend sexting each other. I think it’s a deplorable culture, but it is what they know and who they are. Is it okay to make fun of them or not? Why? > > […]Honestly, if someone is stupid enough to honestly believe one of those cultural stereotypes then they aren’t worth anyone’s time. If we weren’t all so kind, natural selection would take care of such imbeciles. **vtteacher:** > […] I wish the people who didn’t believe these stereotypes could easily be ignored. Unfortunately, many are in positions of power & influence: just look at AL’s new “immigration” law. While some may be motivated simply by wanting a more law-based society, this is also a huge push-back against another culture based on negative stereotypes. ————— **schatt:** > Where’s the white guy tearfully holding up a picture of a businessman? **parkwood1920:** > When white businessmen are detained at Guantanamo Bay or federal detention centers for the crime of solely being white businessmen, or beaten to death by teenagers who joke about “stomping a businessman,” you let me know.? **Osa Taas:** > At what point is the line drawn though?  What if I admire Harriet Tubman and want to dress as her for Halloween?  Am I ‘not allowed’ because I’m not African American?  I agree that intentionally derogatory costumes should be avoided, but it could also be a slippery slope.? > > […] Maybe we can just make it, “If we really want to fight racism, then one of the most important things that people need to do is really listen to other people.” **Rowan Griffith:** > Well yeah, but white people tend to get listened to way more than everybody else, and at the expense of people of color.? **FlutterDoo:** > People don’t listen to me at all.  Maybe you’re confusing “White People” with “Rich People”, because there are more rich white people than non-white people.  But that can’t be, because then YOU would be the racist, assuming all white people are rich and get their voices heard, huh?? > > I think these people are being stupid and need to grow thicker skin. Hell, I’m also gay!  If some straight guy goes around acting gay and wiggling dildos in everyone’s face it’s because he’s choosing to act stupid for Halloween, WHO CARES!? **PersephoneF:** > so….only white people of any nationality can be racist? If a black woman wanted to dress as a geisha, that’s okay? —————- **shannon mason:** > 1 in 3 Native women will be raped once in their lifetime.  > > Whenever I see someone wandering around on Halloween in a groin high skirt with fake feathers and a little vest barely covering their chest, I think of this statistic. I am also reminded of the fact that more than 80% of these crimes are perpetrated by non-native men.  > > 1 in 10 black men in the United States aged 25 to 29 is incarcerated. > > When I see someone jokingly sipping from a ridiculous plastic chalice dressed as a pimp, I remember the fact that the more young black men are incarcerated than any other racial group. That nearly 50% of the prison population is black. > > Dressing up just makes these realities seem okay. And they’re not. By going out as a reinforcement of a stereotype we are only reinforcing that these are the available roles for us to fulfill… sexualized object, hustler, lazy worker… there’s nothing fun about it.? **Evan Johnson:** > These statistics are daunting, but we are talking about halloween costumes. If everyone suddenly decided to go as something boring like an apple or bumblebee, those stats probably wouldn’t change.? **snookifan:** > […] Personally, I think being called racist is probably the one attack minorities have against white people and STARS took full advantage of that.  I’m not surprised by how people are reacting to it.  It’s not fair and also it’s not helping the situation at all… and really, it’s RACIST.? **CJ_Canadian:** > Racism = prejudice + power.? **Aliza Flores:** > Regardless of our opinion on this matter, it is important that we think about the corporate side of all of this. People spend so much money on buying costumes every year. We are not the ones benefiting from this in any way. Just think about this, they’re making money out of mocking and diminishing people, and that their choice of mocking POC and other groups is conscious. This is not coincidental.? ————— **libractivist:** > A) It’s blatantly unfair to revel in the “exoticism” of someone else’s culture, whether you mean it in a positive or a negative way, when that very “exoticism” or otherness keeps people in that culture from ever fully fitting in, plays into whether or not they can get a job, makes them more likely to be arrested, or simply colors every interaction they have with the assumption that they will be “smart” or “hard working” or “sassy” or “submissive”. > > B) Even if you’re trying very, very hard to emulate someone you respect – it’s 99% sure that as a white person (or as a man, or as a straight person, or…) you cannot actually do justice to what it means to be a person of color who lives with the experience of racism (or a woman who is subject to sexism, or a queer person…you get the point.) There are other ways to honor someone than to act like you identify with them when you really can’t. > > C) Blackface: Just don’t do it. Blackface, particularly in America, has a long and awful history of being used specifically to mock African Americans. Even if you’re emulating a particular person, even if you mean it in the best possible way, even if it wasn’t *your* ancestors who did that…just accept that blackface will always have those connotations and be hurtful to some people. > > As a white person, you have about 80 billion other costume choices – most of our pop stars and media people and kids characters and movie idols are white. So really…let’s not pretend showing a little respect is going to destroy our fun.? > > […] The reason stereotypes of people of colour are hurtful in a way that stereotypes of white people aren’t is that they are often the only images we see. While the media is full of people of Austrian and other European descent being good, bad, and everything in between, minorities are all too often essentialized to one (often negative) archetype.  > > It has nothing to do with believing white people are “the only ones who do bad stuff on earth”, and everything to do with learning to understand CONTEXT.?

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