Offensive Halloween Costumes: Not That Big of a Deal?

Jeanné Isler

Halloween has just passed, leaving its annual conflict about racist costumes still brewing. Compared to some conflicts in the world that involve war, genocide or human trafficking, this seems like small potatoes. But it rolls around every year. On one side are writers displaying photos of the most racially offensive costumes available on the internet along with their advice, analysis and criticism. Some are proactive, advising people beforehand how not to be racist in their costume choices. On the other side are people who wear these costumes, who don't think it's that big of a deal, who believe they should be able to wear whatever they want for Halloween or who think the costumes are funny.

I wish that I could provide a handy list of rules to determine whether or not a Halloween costume is racist (or sexist, or classist, or homophobic or otherwise offensive). But it's not that easy, although some argue it is. While this conflict doesn't have the immediate, tragically violent effects of, say, the war in Syria, it is more complex than just a handful of people wearing costumes that other people don't like. It's about collective ignorance, privilege and trauma.

For example, Julianne Hough offered a public apology for painting her face in her portrayal of Crazy Eyes, a character from Orange is the New Black. She apologized, saying it was "never [her] intention to be disrespectful or demeaning to anyone in any way." If her intention truly didn't include disrespect, she couldn't have known much about the traumatic emotional impact of blackface on many Americans. It's a part of her privilege as a white woman in the United States to be able to justify her action by pointing out the difference between her intent and her impact.

Of course not everyone who dresses up in an offensive costume is ignorant of the impact. Some people might want the attention that controversy brings, or they could just think their own humor is more important or they could simply be racist (or classist, etc.). Take Caitlin Cimeno who has been the focus of heavy backlash after she posted a picture of herself with two men dressed as George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin, one of whom was in blackface. Cimeno has since deleted the pictures, changed her Instagram and Facebook accounts, and apparently lost her job because of the photo. Given how charged the Zimmerman trial was, it's unlikely that Cimeno and her friends didn't know the picture would offend people.

Regardless of intentions, a general ignorance persists among Americans of all races about the close connection between these images to serious, long-term problems that affect our country. It is not required curriculum in the United States to learn about the influence caricatures in blackface and other stereotypical portrayals had on sustaining laws that institutionalized the social, academic and economic disenfranchisement of people of color, poor people, women, disabled people and others. Many people of color are directly affected by these laws because they themselves had their rights violated or they have living relatives who were disenfranchised. These images resurface the real emotions connected to real violations experienced by real people. Seeing someone in blackface is traumatic. Regardless of intention, like the positive intention of a little boy who painted his face to portray Martin Luther King, Jr. for a school speech, the anger, hurt and backlash are the same.

It's not only white people; people of color have also participated in representing stereotypes of themselves in popular culture. Even in 2013, black people wear Halloween costumes that distress other black people, and white people wear costumes representing class divides among whites. We as a nation are collectively ignorant of the complex history that makes such costumes painful. My mother, who is African American and grew up in segregated New Orleans during the 1950s and 1960s, told me once that she wasn't aware as a child that the movies, cartoons, magazine ads and other images she saw were racist. "Cowboys and Indians" movies, Tarzan and Warner Bros cartoons stereotyped Japanese people -- these images justified to the whole nation why each group was discriminated against in important social systems like education, banking and citizenship. Costumes that reflect such images still offend today because we have not completely erased or corrected the experience and effects of this discrimination.

So people are offended. They speak out, write articles and blogs, demand public apologies, and then what happens? We have the same conversation next year. It's fine that Julianne Hough apologized, but did she learn anything? Did she Google the origins of blackface to learn why it was offensive? Maybe. Maybe not. Cimeno lost her job and deleted her accounts. Has her opinion changed? Or will she just not post pictures of it anymore? In the end, we have to get beyond anger on one side and shame on the other (and complacency on the third) if we want to prevent the need for this conversation every Halloween.

It would be easy if we could guarantee that people who wore such stereotypical costumes understood the impact before they made the decision to do so. Then any righteous anger could be directed appropriately. But to guarantee that would take a drastic shift in how we tell the story of our national identity to one another. So instead, I propose that we all work together to heal the trauma that happened to so many different kinds of people in our nation's history. This means that when we are looking for solutions to unemployment, education and a long list of other problems that affect our nation, we don't shy away from talking about the racial, class, gender and other dynamics of these problems, in the past and present. Only after we own up to how these images were, and are, used to limit people's full participation in our society can we get to that ideal place where the costumes truly become "not that big of a deal."

2013-10-31-Jeanne078.jpgJeanné Isler is the Director of U.S. Programs at Search for Common Ground. Learn more about their work by clicking here. This post is courtesy of the Skoll Foundation and The Huffington Post's Social Entrepreneurs Challenge.