Wednesday, October 29, 2008

suddenly get interested in non-white people whenever halloween comes around

Do any of the following four images strike you as a racist way for a white person to celebrate Halloween?

Each of these images includes white people celebrating Halloween by connecting with other races. Or rather, with ideas of other races. Of course, the photo with the Obama pumpkin would seem entirely non-racist to most Americans (unless, perhaps, they're Republicans). That's because it's the only one where white people aren't dressed up as people of other races.

So among the other three photos above of various white folks in racial drag, is any one of them more racist than the other two (assuming you think that any of them are racist)?

I would bet that for most white Americans, the image of the three blackened white boys seems the most wrong. And for some, the only one that's wrong. That one is pretty widely recognizable as an example of the old-fashioned, denigrated entertainment practice of "blackface." That thing that got Ted Danson in trouble back in the day, during . . . what was it?

Oh right, a roast, for Whoopi Goldberg:

Ted Danson
Friars Club Roast (1993)

If the other two get-ups depicted above--the "Indian Brave" and the "Geisha"--don't seem as racist to a lot of white people as the one depicting blackface "wiggers," why is that? Why is it that blackface is more clearly wrong, while redface or yellowface are okay, or else, not as wrong?

What about Halloween parties that have racial themes? Do you think those are wrong? Like the "ghetto fabulous" or "tacos and tequila" parties that occur on college campuses? And in people's living rooms?

It's been my experience that when white folks are questioned about such Halloween choices, they usually brush off any allegations of racism with the claim that it's all just good, harmless fun. The implication is that they don't intend to be racist, and therefore, they're not. Never mind any actual effects of their actions.

But if those are "all in good fun," then how about a houseful of white folks throwing something called a "lynching party"? Would that be any different, or worse?

Actually, I wonder if that's what these young good ol' boys at Auburn University called this Halloween party:

So what do you think? Where do you draw the line on these things?

If you see anyone dressed up like a stereotype this Halloween, do you plan to say anything to them?

On that last point, how would the following idea work for you?

If you meet a white friend or acquaintance who's dressed up like a member of some other race or ethnic group, you could say this to them: "Wow, what a concept! Where'd you get the idea of dressing up like a racist dipshit?"


  1. My aunt and uncle used to host big Halloween bashes for their neighbors, friends, and relatives. I never went, because I didn't want to be drinking at a party and have to drive 35 miles home afterwards.

    One year, my sister attended. The next day, she said, "It's all for the best that you didn't go, because one of [aunt]'s neighbors was dressed as a Chinaman." Coolie hat, fake buckteeth, fake accent, the works.

    I was hoping my aunt was educable, so I broached the topic at Christmas. She insisted that the costume was "funny" and didn't understand why I thought it was so offensive. (Listen, idiot, my husband is Asian-American, and I'm not racist.)

    This aunt has a peppered past with racial sensitivity. She uses the N-word, and she asked my college roommate how it felt to be "different" (she's Asian-American). Mm-hmm, this was the very first time in her life that my roommate had ever come face to face with white racism, with such idiocy.

    To answer your question, Macon: The blackface and lynching costumes have the most freighted and violent and demeaning history, so I would be the most appalled by those. But dressing up as Asians, Latinos, or Native Americans is also offensive. Isn't it astonishing that after America's history of genocide of Native Americans, that so many sports teams and schools still have "Indian" mascots?

  2. I think generally when white people dress up in costumes to look like non-white people, it's racist. I think many of the people who do it, probably don't intend it that way, which speaks to the point that you've made. Intent is not enough. People need to be more aware of how their behavior is perceived.

    There's a gray area when someone dresses up as a specific person of another race. For example, there will undoubtedly be Barack Obama masks and costumes worn this year by people of all races. Little girls dressed up as Pocahontis after the Disney movie came out. Historically, dressing up as a Geisha hasn't come off as offensive, but then again, I don't know how Asian-Americans feel about that.

    Perhaps I'm too timid, but for me a good rule of thumb is to consider how a costume would make someone of another race feel and if I'm unsure of the answer, then I shouldn't do it.

    I'll be interested in hearing what other people have to say. Great post!

  3. How about when folks dress up as "white trash"? I personally don't get Halloween in general. I find it to be one of the dumbest "holidays" obscenely removed from it's roots. I find it offensive when people dress up or co-opt another person's culture at any time. This is also rampant in sports culture and not just in the naming of mascots.

    I have no problem at all with suggesting a person's costume may be racist if I believe it to be. But I'm not getting the racism in the carved pumpkins. I saw another picture of an "Obama pumpkin" at another site but this time there was a little kid wearing an Obama t-shirt, smiling proudly. Can you further explain the racism in this in case I'm just missing it?

  4. Good post. A girl I went to college with did a blackface Michael Jackson Halloween costume a few years ago. She wasn't the brightest person, so our attempts to gently tell her the problem with blackface fell on deaf ears. The whole "intent" thing again.

    What's starting to get my dander up is the horribly racial shit come Thanksgiving: the children's books and toys depicting a "happy harmony" between native americans and pilgrims, etc. I wanted to get my niece a fun thanksgiving book, but couldn't find any that didn't perpetuate this myth of the "wise savage" and the "civilized Europeans" harmoniously sharing the land.

  5. Thanks for the illustrative story, orange, and for getting the conversation that I hoped would happen with this post by answering that question. I agree, of course, with your answer, and with your additional (rhetorical) question.

    I like your rule of thumb, lisa. Yes, change of focus, please, from intentions to effects.

    A Smith.: But I'm not getting the racism in the carved pumpkins. I saw another picture of an "Obama pumpkin" at another site but this time there was a little kid wearing an Obama t-shirt, smiling proudly. Can you further explain the racism in this in case I'm just missing it?

    I didn't say it is racist (and I don't think it is). I put that image in the post as a sort of foil to the other three, by way of sorting out what is and isn't a racist connection made by white people to non-white people during Halloween. As I wrote after the first four photos, "the photo with the Obama pumpkin would seem entirely non-racist to most Americans (unless, perhaps, they're Republicans). That's because it's the only one where white people aren't dressed up as people of other races."

    Phoebe, I'm not looking forward to another round of Thanksgiving blindness either. Robert Jensen has done some writing on that holiday's racism that should interest you (along with the comments that article generated--616 of them!).

  6. I want that Obama pumpkin!

    Otherwise, to be perfectly honest, I never gave a thought to white folks dressing as other races beyond it being amusing. I'm sure some blacks are offended; I just have a high tolerance for humor in various forms.

    Whites in Klan or Nazi outfits, however, frighten me.

  7. I wish I could be surprised at people dressing up like stereotypes of other races, but I'm not. It is racist, all those pictures but the pumpkins. I can't think of a time I was ever with any friends who did this, so that's good. Mostly we stick to horror movie characters...or The Crow.

  8. I don't know if my last comment showed up after I logged into Blogger, but I did want to add that I don't think that a party themed "tacos and tequila" is necessarily racist. I would have a party themed that if, you know, I was serving tacos and had different tequilas available, however I wouldn't be dressed in costume depicting a stereotype. I think that theme depends on how the people participating use it. If it's a description of what's being served at the party, in the same way as something such as "wine and cheese", then it's merely descriptive. If it's used as a way to dress up and denigrate a culture, then it becomes racist.

    Now a "Ghetto Fabulous" theme is a little different. It's offensive.

  9. Well, anything exotic, right? I was irritated in the otherwise great movie "Rachel Getting Married" that the theme/design of the wedding was "Indian" - the bride and bridesmaids wore saris, etc. etc. Like a whole race and culture are just one more optional theme. What was really weird about it was that the 2 families in the movie (one white, one black) were all comfortable with their diversity; there were Asian friends at the wedding as well. No Indians though-- was that the only people left to offend? The decor even included, literally, ethnic window-dressing: mannequins in saris posed around the rehearsal dinner room.

    (The thing I dread about Halloween is that every costume, if you're female, is the sexxxayyy version--but that's a post for a different blog.)

  10. Years ago, a white co-worker, whose skin was as white as snow, dressed for Halloween as an Asian Indian, she wore a sari and the jewelry and sandals that Indian women wear, and she pasted a third-eye betwixt her eyebrows. She did not darken her skin. I thought that her "costume" was offensive, racist.

    I share that, because I think the sari is a beautiful garment. I would love to wear them, not as a costume, but as a choice of clothing that I would wear just as I do the western clothing that I wear daily. The sari is one of the world's most perfect garments for a woman to wear, and many of the fabrics that one can choose are so very beautiful. As a black woman, whose skin colour is the same shade of brown--sometimes lighter--than many of the Indian people I have met/known, I sometimes feel that it would be okay for me to wear the sari. But, I do not, because I feel that it might come across as offensive and/or racist to Indians--I prefer to err on the side of caution. However, if ever I visit for an extended period of time, or live in India, I would most definitely wear the sari then.

  11. When it comes to wearing halloween costumes that look like another ethnic group, there are some that I am no opposed to. Examples of this being, a person dressed up like a the disney character Poccahontas who was a native, or dressing up like the Geisha from the movie, when I see that I take it as that person is trying to imitate a character from a movie, and therefore see nothing wrong with it. Anyone will dress up like Jack Sparrow the pirate or the Joker so why not a Geisha or Poccahontas. It may come across as offensive to some if its not depicted the character its supposed to. But if it is to mimic the character, i'm fine with it.

  12. From my earlier comment [see above]:

    "...She did not darken her skin. I thought that her "costume" was offensive, racist."

    I should have written those sentences the following:

    Smartly, she did not darken her skin. Nonetheless, I thought that her "costume" was offensive and racist.

  13. My sensibilities, which could still not be sensible enough, are:

    -Dressing up as any "generic" member of another ethnic group is racist. I thought the "Chinese Person Wigs" I saw at Hot Topic were pushing it.

    -Dressing up as an individual famous person of another race, such as Barack Obama, is not necessarily racist, although it could be if you make an extra effort to play up racial stereotypes in how you do the costume. I don't think putting on an Obama mask and a business suit would be racist. But going as Osama Bin Laden...might be, because the bushy beard and the head covering have kind of become racist stereotypes.

  14. this shit makes me want to cry. white people's racist parodies of people of color that is. it seems to be another example of whites trying to fill a perceived racial/cultural/spiritual void in their own lives through cultural appropriation, except instead of trying to appropriate culture they are trying to color, ways of dressing? it's even more blatant and offensive. as for "white trash" parties, they are problematic in that they specifically make fun of poor and working class white people. it's classism, let's not confuse it for "reverse racism."

    i hope i live to see the abolition of the word "wigger." gross.

  15. I see this as being different from cultural appropriation, once again echoing what everyone has said with "intent."

    Emulating someone you admire is very different from wearing a costume, especially since with Halloween costumes they are supposed to be funny.

    And, don't get me started on belly dancing costumes, genies, and other such BS.

  16. Thanks for the link. The comments were a riot...

  17. i'm with Angry Black White Girl on this one. Some commenters here don't seem to get that even if you're dressing up as a cartoon Pocahantas or Mulan or whatever, that cartoonish stereptype is about a group of people, and therefore so is your cartoonish costume. As an Asian American, I can tell you it reflects back on me, in ways that annoy and even hurt. And dismay. Think about how we feel, what we think, instead of what YOU see as right or wrong in these matters.

  18. The only reason the awful KKK/ lynching/ blackface costumes seem more threatening or more historically weighted than than the redface costumes, is because most of us don't learn the history or hear about ongoing violence against native people as much as we do about white/black violence and history.

    But I think there is a difference between dressing up as a stereotype and dressing as a job or a role.

    There is an Aztec dance group that practices in the park building near our house and performs at a lot of local events. There are also grass dancers of a wide variety of skin colors at powwows and Native Pride events all around where we live. If one of those kids has a friend or a cousin who isn't native, who wants to be "a grass dancer" for Halloween, I don't think it's racist (it might still be inappropriate, though). And I can see dressing up as Crazy Horse, just like being Abraham Lincoln.

    The line is somewhere between intent and knowledge.

    I have a similar reaction to the geisha costume or a kabuki or sumo costume that's not played for laughs. It's not dressing up as "Japanese". It's a specific kind of person like "fire fighter". I wouldn't dress up as a geisha (or a hooker, or a can-can girl), but I have been stuffed (literally, with some cardboard for shape) into a kimono for holiday dressup, in Japan. Nobody wears those fancy kimonos every day, so it's not dressing up as "Japanese" any more than a sexy nurse costume is dressing up as "white".

    On the other hand, geisha is the one thing a lot of people "know" about Japan, so that pushes it over onto the stereotype side.

    I'm sure I wore my kimono to costume parties a few times (I've worn my old prom dress as a costume a few times, too), and I'm trying to figure out how much of my response is "but I'm not racist" and how much of it is genuine.

  19. I have to say I agree with caspie and Angry Black White Girl on the dressing up as sterotypes from cartoons. Disney has perverted the story of Pocahantas. Dressing up like that is ignoring the true story of her life. I don't know enough about the story of Mulan to comment on that. If someone wants to dress as a Disney character, I think there are others to choose from that don't portray racial sterotypes.

  20. In all fairness to Ted Danson, he was set up by Whoopi Goldberg, who was his girlfriend at the time, to do the black-face bit. She used him to make a cutting-edge, pushing the envelope, political and social statement.

    Danson--as a performer who does not do standup and not being a black person--to be told by your very famous and successful black stand-up comic girlfriend that to do the black-face thing would be okay, I'm sure he did not give a second thought to it [perhaps] being offensive/racist--if he ever gave it a first thought, considering who he was romantically involved with.

  21. Oh I so agree with this post. People seem to think Halloween gives them a free pass to let their inner racist out. It seems it is meant to be free candy and cultural appropriation day.

    I personally did not dress up but made sure that my childrens costumes did not include the othering of another race/culture/ethnicity. I am happy to report that of those that came to my door I didn't see anyone dressed like those images depicted.

  22. I dressed up in black face for Halloween once. It didn't really work out.

    My friend: What are you supposed to be dressed up as?

    Me: A black man.

    My Friend: I you decided not dress up this year!

    Me: ... (sigh)

    I tell you, white people have all the fun (phooey).


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