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October 28, 2013

Clear Guidelines for Not Being Racist On Halloween

There's been a lot of talk about racist Halloween costumes in the last couple weeks, but I haven't seen any direct guidelines for the clueless (other than hilarious stuff like this.)

So I thought I'd provide.

Here's what blackface is. Relatedly, yellowface, brownface, and redface.

Here's the problem with racialized Halloween costumes. (If you need more, use those highly developed google skills. It's not like the discussion's been hiding somewhere.)

Okay? Okay. So here are your guidelines:

  1. Are you dressing as someone or something of a different race or ethnicity than yourself? For example, a fireman or a cop or a mouse or a sandwich is non-ethnic-specific, so your race or ethnicity could conceivably be that thing. So no worries, you're in the clear. Go forth and costume to your heart's content. On the other hand, a slave, brave, or geisha? Well, I guesss they could be someone who isn't African American, Native American, or Japanese, technically ... but we're not splitting hairs. If you're not of the typical ethnicity/race of your costume, you're in the red zone. Keep reading.
  2. Are you costuming UP or costuming DOWN? This is similar to "mocking up" or "mocking down," in that true humor always makes fun of power, not powerlessness. So if you're making a joke about people below you in the social hierarchy, you're exercising privilege over people less powerful than you, whereas if you're making a joke about people at your level or above you in the social hierarchy, you're speaking truth to power. Costuming is, similarly, imitation, parody, or travesty. Costuming down is usually a disgusting exercise of privilege. So do it up only, never down, unless you're doing it as an unambiguously positive way of honoring someone. So, are you dressing as someone, or something, of a race or ethnicity that is above or below your own on the racial hierarchy? If above, you're probably on the side of the angels, but be thoughtful about it. If below, you've moved even farther into the red zone. Keep reading.
  3. Did you choose this costume to mock, be cool, or honor? If you're costuming cross-racially and down, you have to ask yourself why did you choose this costume? If the answer is "because it's funny," then you hit the third rail. That's mocking down and you're wearing a racist costume. If the answer is "because it's cool," then zap again. You're culturally appropriating and your costume is racist. If your answer is "because I love this person/these people and I want to be like them/honor them," keep reading.
  4. Are you dressing as a person or a category? That is to say, are you dressing as an actual present or historical figure or as a fictional character, or are you dressing as a member of a category? A member of a category includes: Indian princess, Indian brave, geisha, ninja, martial arts whatever, Mexican dude in serape and sombrero, mariachi, gang-banger, chola, "pimp" complete with 'fro, any kind of ethnic costume, arab, chinese, indigenous Australian, Zulu, etc. etc. If you're dressing racially down to honor an individual, keep reading. If you're dressing racially down as a fictional character because you love that character/want to be that character, then keep reading. But if you're dressing racially down as a member of a category, because they're cool and you want to be like them, then you're culturally appropriating a stereotype and need to check yourself. Game show buzzer: your costume is racist.
  5. Are you changing your skin color and/or wearing a wig to change your racial appearance? If so, your costume is racist.

You'll note that, if you're:

  1. cross-racially costuming 
  2. down
  3. as a character or historical figure 
  4. because you love and want to honor them and
  5. have not changed your skin or hair color or put on an "ethnic" wig to approach that character's racial appearance more closely

... then the implication is that you're okay. Right? Well, again, be thoughtful about it. And check this out. Do you see a pattern there?

ETA: Oh, this one's good too!

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