Tuesday, October 25, 2011

We´re a Culture, Not a Costume

Students Teaching Against Racism in Society (STARS) is a student organization at Ohio University. Their mission: “To educate and facilitate discussion about racism and to promote racial harmony and to create a safe, non-threatening environment to allow participants to feel comfortable to express their feelings.”

They created these anti-racist Halloween campaign posters to give us all something to think about as we select costumes this year. That when people dress up as "an Indian" or "a Mexican" they are using an entire culture as a prop. And that is wrong.

By now, these posters have been re-posted at numerous sites on the internet. I am amazed by the rancor this campaign has brought out in some people. The comments can be nasty. But they are a window onto the minds of people who 1. do not think they are racists, 2. believe they know what racism is and 3. are somehow offended by the campaign rather than enlightened by it.

Many White Americans believe there exists a special Racism Test, that only they can administer. They imagine the races switched in a given situation and if they wouldn´t feel offended they believe minorities shouldn´t feel offended either.

Costumes are a great example. In many of the comments I´ve seen where these images have been posted elsewhere, people (presumably white) complain that they wouldn´t be offended if they saw a black person dressed as a cowboy, or a Mexican dressed as a Viking. Therefore, minorities shouldn´t be offended when white people use foreign cultures as costumes.

"I hope I don't offend anyone of Scandinavian descent if I dress up as a Viking this Halloween. Will Italians be outraged if I dress up in a toga? I suspect that Italians and Scandinavi­ans are not as touchy and more secure." Comment on the Huffington Post

Except it doesn´t work this way. When people use this disingenuous Racism Test to determine if something is racist or not, they are ignoring the cultural and historical context in which we all live. Italians and Scandinavians in America have now been absorbed into the dominant white culture. They cannot experience racism in the way the the Black, Native American, Middle Eastern, Asian and Hispanic students in the posters can.

Should we live in a society where race is not a factor in how people are treated? Of course. But we don´t live there now, and it isn´t helpful to pretend that we do.

White people cannot be the ones to determine if minorities have the right to be offended by what white people do. We cannot say that wearing blackface is ok, because we wouldn´t be offended if black people painted themselves white. This colorblind way of viewing racism does not help us get beyond racism, it perpetuates it.

I assume that most of the people leaving comments along the lines of "This is too PC" or " They are being too sensitive" would not want to be seen as racists. But in their inability to understand their own privilege or to be empathetic with someone else´s experience, they are exposing how little they know about not being racist.

I really commend the students who created these posters. They are well done and very thought provoking. It hurts when others point out your racism. I believe that is why so many of the comments are angry. But this Halloween, people may think twice about their costume choice. Or maybe it will take until next Halloween for the point to sink in. But at least the dialogue has begun.

Related Posts:

Nivea: Of Course this is Racism
All Posts on Race

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