Each of the last couple of years, Halloween time sees a number of flow charts getting passed around through social media helping people answer the question, “Is this costume racist?” These are helpful to an extent, and usually add enough humor to help them spread. But their medium limits their analysis.
Jenée Desmond-Harris has contributed some great analysis on The Root, last year and this year. In addition to pointing out that one needs to consider a costume’s effects on others and not only the wearer’s intent, she also comments on the “I’m-just-having-fun” response.
That kind of defensiveness is a symptom of the very attitude that stifles productive conversation about race for the other, noncostumed 364 days out of the year, says David J. Leonard, associate professor in and chair of the department of critical culture, gender and race studies at Washington State University, Pullam. “It just reflects how we talk about race in contemporary society,” he says. “It reflects the overall belief that race doesn’t matter, or that it only matters when people of color — who are accused of being overly sensitive, or ‘playing the race card’ — bring it up.”
Adding more from her interview with Dr. Leonard:
The important question, … Leonard says, is, “Why are ‘the other’ and ‘the exotic’ such sources of enjoyment and pleasure” that they’ve become Halloween staples? “What does it tell us,” he asks, “that amid all these scary things of ghosts and witches, we also have all these racialized costumes?” Plus, Leonard says, these choices “normalize whiteness” as the soccer mom or businessman in everyday clothes, thereby reinforcing inaccurate ideas about totally distinct racial and cultural communities.
… The “culture” costumes “tend to refer to very one-dimensional caricatures that are not at all authentic,” says Leslie Picca Houts, associate professor at the University of Dayton.
When it comes down to it, if you find yourself in a conversation with someone who just doesn’t get why they shouldn’t wear a certain costume, ask them, “Why would you be willing to even potentially offend even a few people just to wear a certain costume that some people would find racist?”
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