Voices: Halloween — A White Privilege Christmas

By Arturo R. García

Halloween is getting worse by the year.

Consider last weekend, when the sight of Julianne Hough using blackface to dress as a character from Orange Is The New Black was followed within hours by the sight of two Florida men, Greg Cimeno and William Filene, adding themselves to the ranks of the rank with their Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman “costume.”

We won’t link to that image here. But we’d be remiss in not pointing out that their cohort, Massachusetts native Caitlin Cimeno, took the time out of her day to photograph a Black child without her consent and post this diatribe against her shirt bearing the words, Black Girls Rock:

First of all, sorry Hun but mommy lied to you & secondly if I was wearing a shirt that said something like the truth ‘white girls rock’ I would be stared at and called a racist cracker.

Well, now people are staring at them and calling them racists. And worse. And deservedly so.

But, of course, they’re not alone. Certainly Greg Cimeno and Filene aren’t alone in mocking Trayvon Martin. And, as Angry Asian Man points out, it’s not just the Black community being targeted:

Behold, the a-sholes who dressed up as bruised and bloodied Asiana Airlines flight attendants. This photo was apparently taken over the weekend at the Sidetrack Video Bar in Chicago.

Their costumes, of course, refer to Asiana Airlines Flight 214, which crashed earlier this year in San Francisco, killing three passengers. And yes, their name badges identify themselves as “Ho Lee Fuk,” “Sum Ting Wong” and “Wi Tu Lo” — the fake racist flight crew names that infamously ran as a prank on KTVU.

Under the cut, we’ll take a look at some of the best responses to what’s become a White Privilege Christmas — a sort of migratory call for every two-bit prejudiced reject from The Onion to show the world just how low they’re willing to go because they lack both imagination and humanity.

Hough took her costume one step further, though, dousing herself in bronzer to darken her skin so she might better resemble Uzo Aduba, the actress who plays Crazy Eyes. The blackface did nothing of the sort. It never does. Instead, Hough looked like she spent way too much time out in the Los Angeles sun before stepping out that evening. Once the images of Hough in her ill-informed costume were released, the Internet went crazy.

Here we were, yet again, having this bewildering conversation about why blackface, given its historical uses and the ongoing sensitivity around issues of race, will never be an appropriate costume choice. The apology parade began, and Hough said: “I am a huge fan of the show ‘Orange is the New Black,’ actress Uzo Aduba and the character she has created. It certainly was never my intention to be disrespectful or demeaning to anyone in any way. I realize my costume hurt and offended people, and I truly apologize.”

We know this dance. Public figure makes misstep. Public figure apologizes. That apology is then dissected endlessly, and we’re left wondering if the public figure even knows what they’re apologizing for.
- Roxane Gay, Los Angeles Times

Nobody called me out, but I panicked when I got word that another Native writer had arrived, a woman I had recently heard read but had never met. “She’s going to think I’m some white girl dressed as an Indian,” I thought. I kept a wall physically between us for half the night until I found both of us reaching for pumpkin cookies. “Hi,” I said, my stomach seizing. “I’m Elissa. I’ve heard you read — you’re great. I’m Native, too.”

I prepared for her to ask me to put a coat on and think of what my mother would say if she saw me, but instead, she smiled. “Hello there, sister. What nation are you from?”

After years of teaching American Indian Studies at the university level, including classes on Hollywood’s twisting of the world’s conception of Indianness, I have become deeply ashamed of my night in costume. The iconic Indian maiden — slender, servile and ready to be defiled under her fitted dress — is a rotten fantasy that spoils too many people’s understanding of actual indigenous womanhood. In her sexed-up dress, the maiden becomes the spoils of war. By donning my own fake feathers, I subverted nothing. Instead, I excused Halloween racism, inviting anyone who met me to do the same — after all, they’d met an Indian girl who wore a headdress and everything. I know my ancestors saw my get-up, and I don’t think they found me clever.
- Elissa Washuta, Salon

Instead of another hand-wringing op-ed pleading with these people to please-baby-please be more sensitive come Halloween or to understand the troubling history of blackface, it’s time to face the truth: every year a surprising amount of White folks are telling us to kiss their asses with these costumes (and with many, many other actions, but we’re just talking about this one today). At this point in history, an adult who chooses to put on a blackface costume for a social occasion—who uses it in a fashion spread or to promote a makeup or for any other reason aside from some sort of recreation of historical minstrelsy that is done to examine the racism of the practice—knows it’s offensive and that people will be hurt and/or angered by it.

AND THEY DON’T CARE.
- Jamila Lemieux, Ebony

“Liberty For All,” by Julio Salgado & Tina Vasquez, CultureStrike.

This again, is where we dig deeper into the words that make a lot of white folks lose their sh*t. I can’t unpack the whole world of white supremacy and privilege in a couple of paragraphs, so I’ll just scratch the surface here. I first would like to take another moment to remind all of you readers that I, too, have white privilege. I don’t hide it. I’ve got light skin and light eyes and 90% of people would look at me and say “oh hey, look, a white person.” So lemme talk to you, white-ish person to white person. Just because someone points out our privilege, and points out that we get benefits because of it, does not mean 1. That we didn’t “deserve” any accolade, opportunity, or accomplishment we’ve received. 2. That we should feel guilty for our privilege 3. That we are racist, bad people. All it means is that we need to stop and think about how messed up it is that we live in a society that was founded on the backs of black and brown folks and how unfair it is to all of us that we still live in that society, and then? *Do* something about it.

So when I’m telling you as the reader in this paragraph that you are in a position of power simply because you’re white, I’m not saying you haven’t worked hard, I’m not saying you haven’t struggled, I’m not saying that there aren’t white people who are in desperate and shitty situations right this very moment. I’m saying that white people, in general, are the people with all the power in our society, and that we live in a society that–generally–favors those with white skin. Yes, we’ve got a black president, but he’s also half white (ha). But really, think about it. And how did white people get that power? Through attempting to eradicate Native Americans (to gain resources) and enslaving Black Americans (to make money from those resources). Again, these are facts. I’m not making this up right now. This is a simple history lesson. But again,to reiterate, am I saying you are a very bad person simply because you are white? No.
- Adrienne Keene, Native Appropriations

Silence is a form of endorsement—and in these cases, that means quiet approval of costumes that celebrate racism and death. Yet social media are not allowing these incidents to go unnoticed, with users making it clear that blackface, in any version, is unacceptable.

While we celebrate that small triumph, let’s not forget that one month from today, most people will be celebrating Thanksgiving, while silently endorsing the death of Natives who made it possible.
- Aura Bogado, The Nation

  • happyappa

    Ugh, you should see Let’s Make a Deal, that show is like racist Halloween for some every day it’s on. Halloween certainly isn’t getting better if those people are still wearing and selling that crap.

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  • PatrickInBeijing

    The media and all of us are enablers if we let them say “I didn’t know”. Everyone who is remotely attached to American society knows this. We should ask them, instead, “Why doesn’t this bother you”, and when they reply that they didn’t know, politely inform them that this lie is no longer acceptable, and then ask them once again “why doesn’t this bother you”. Claiming ignorance is not a legitimate excuse and should not be taken as such. It’s not about saying sorry, it’s about explaining why this doesn’t offend you.
    Thanks for a great article.

  • Miles_Ellison

    Julianne Hough is only about the 1 millionth white person to trowel on blackface since the election of Barack Obama ushered in the “post-racial” era, and she’s only about the 1 millionth blackface donning white person who “didn’t realize it was offensive.” It’s 2013. Blackface is offensive. If you don’t know this by now, you’re criminally oblivious. If you do and cork up anyway, you’re a racist.

  • Melanie Victoria

    I think the phrase “we’re a culture, not a costume” encapsulates perfectly why these types of costumes are f*cked up and wrong. What if I wore a Klu Klux Klan costume for Halloween as a statement that being racist and hateful is the defining feature of white identity? White people would be in an uproar (rightfully so). Yet why must non-whites, year after year, remind whites of why appropriating our appearance in the name of fun is racist and demeaning? Really makes you think…

  • littleeva

    I think the statement, “Halloween is getting worse by the year” means that every year, someone always does something stupid like dress up in blackface; what it means is that there are STILL people who just don’t care what they do.

  • brownmichelle

    I love the compilation – and will almost definitely steal some of these essays for my courses – but I gotta disagree with this, “Halloween is getting worse by the year.” The fact that Hough’s costume was answered by the internet going bonkers is evidence that this isn’t the case. Unless someone can show me sales figures demonstrating that per-capita expenditures on afro wigs are increasing, I’m betting this is actually getting better. I’d compare it to the excitement over the Cheerios ad earlier this year. On the one hand, we saw lots of evidence that there are a bunch of racists around terrified of ‘miscegenation.’ On the other hand, the vast majority of responses was that the ad was awesome. The internet does a great job of highlighting the racists, which is good because then we can call them racists and help the blissfully unaware know what racism looks like, which in turn helps there be less racism (I hope). So, all that to say, I love this post, but I’m not convinced that Halloween is worse than it used to be.