To be fair, I was only a teenager when I went to a Halloween party in black face. I didn’t know what to make of the minstrel show clips I saw as a child, and had no awareness of how offensive they were. They seemed strange, but I observed everyone having a good time. People were laughing, including some of the black musicians in the band. There was singing and dancing, a sense of joviality prevailed. My childish eyes could not apprehend the manifest parody, derision, and racism amidst the banjo-playing and slap-happy dancing.
My adult mind is aware how racism is normalized and entrenched by such parodies, which were rampant in my day, though not as blatantly or offensively as Blackface. Their outward, harmless appearance spectacularly conceals the dehumanizing seeds of ethnic chauvinism from which they spawn; they dress up the ugliness of bigotry and derision of others in a ritual of celebration. It is difficult to apprehend the racism you’ve swallowed up when it is served up in such a scrumptious meal.
The spectacle is what renders cultural media such effective, insidious institutions of bigotry. They spread it in a way that seems benign, in a way elusive to our basic human impulse for decency, and by that tack allows it to infiltrate our consciousness. Before anyone knows it, they’ve internalized a racist view of another creed; one that is hard to discern as such because it was embedded so surreptitiously, in such entertaining fashion. How can something that made so many people happy, that is a party to such enjoyment, possibly be racist?
At this point, it is relevant to mention that I am black. I cannot fully remember why I thought the Blackface costume would be a funny choice. I had not thought about it in terms of a cruel parody, not exactly anyway. In hindsight, I simply thought Jolson and Blackface was a ridiculous phenomenon; a white guy pretending to be a black guy, but doing it so pitifully he ends up being a parody of himself. Essentially, I saw Jolson as a shitty bigot, which for me was hilarious. I had been subjected to the witless barbs of countless similarly inept bigots by my mid-teens. They made me roll my eyes and feel for those possessed of a mind so dull as to be incapable of crafting half-decent derision. It was unthinkable to me that throngs of people of the day believed Jolson’s schtick was riveting entertainment when he was so utterly terrible – he couldn’t dance, sing, or act. I played the costume as me making fun of a moronic white guy trying hard to be a black guy and failing to pull it off with fabulous incompetence.
I was persuaded to choose such a racist parody of a costume in much the same way as any other white kid my age would have done at the time; parodies of other creeds were always inspiration for a costume to suit the need for our amusement. I did not give a moment’s thought about how others among the creed mocked by Jolson’s Black-face gambit might feel about it. I was black, which did give me license to play it, though looking back it also invites genuine racists to laugh at me and my folk without pausing for a self-critical gander in the mirror to see their racist inner-selves doing the laughing.
I was a black kid raised in a white family without any contact with my black biological father or his family. In effect, I was possessed of a culturally white mind. It would have been disingenuous for me to claim a reasonable understanding of what another black person would have felt about the minstrel show phenomenon and I never did such a thing. I always saw myself as white, until someone, out of the blue called me the n-word.
In reality, I possessed nothing of real black consciousness to make a meaningful judgement on this point. In my defence, I was also still a child and had zero exposure to any meaningful discussions about race issues – either my own or among others. My family and all of my best friends were white. My local television celebrities were white. Everyone at the country club was white. The Beatles best album was White. Even the food I ate was white – potatoes, cauliflower, butter and crumpets, turnips, cucumber sandwiches with cream cheese and the unsightly brown crusts cut off. With the exception of the inconvenient fact of my brown skin-colour, I was a white dude. White people did not routinely discuss race unless they were disparaging other races.
At the same time, I could have chosen to caricature a multitude of races and creeds for my Halloween enjoyment. In the late 70s and early 80s when I was trick-or-treating, Mexicans, Arabs, Chinamen, and Indian Chiefs were neighbourhood favourites. I saw other ethnic groups and creeds with the eyes of any other teenaged white kid: in narrow, racist terms. The various peoples of the world offered a buffet of stereotypes and parodies to nourish my insatiable appetite for xenophobic amusement.
I don’t want to be a party pooper about this stuff. Hey, I’m pointing the finger as much at yours truly as anyone else. The skin on that finger may be slightly dark-ish, but the bones inside are as white as Tommy Hilfiger and the people he makes clothes for; which fill my own closet.
Halloween is mostly about the fun; about kids dressing up, trick-or-treating and running like banshees on a sugar-rush. Adults young and old will head off to Halloween parties and engage in the ritual of binge-drinking, serial groping, dry humping, and projectile vomiting. Amidst the good-natured Halloween shenanigans is a shadowy side that brings out of the woodwork the latent racism, intolerance, and insensitivity lingering in our culture. It’s time the knuckle-dragging apparition was chased away from the festivities, once and for all.
Think about what it is that makes your prospective costume funny, especially if it involves donning the cultural garb of another people. I am well aware of how difficult it is to think, particularly in a way that requires us to imagine the world from another’s point of view. Trust me, it’ll only take a few seconds, but with that little bit of effort you increase the odds of getting through this Halloween without offending anyone.
Who can forget when Prince Harry went to a Halloween party dressed as Hitler? On his way, the Prince would have breezed past dozens of people at Buckingham Palace camped out in his SS regalia. The flurry of post-gaffe damage-control could have been avoided if only someone among his Etonian crowd had chimed in, “Pray Hal, old chap, jolly good job of the Fuhrer! Well done. Say, wouldn’t a send-up of Napoleon be a little more a propos? ” Establishment friends to offer good counsel must be dreadfully hard to find.
Since 9-11 the profound dearth of creativity and imagination in our culture inevitably spawns countless variations on a theme of Osama bin Laden at Halloween. Scores of frat boys wield toy AK-47s, brandish any garment on their head as a turban, flub crappy hindu accents, and pretend to extol jihad. Apparently, they are dressed up as “terrorists,” a parody which, in their mind, shouldn’t warrant outrage from anyone.
Except, the bong-soaked performances of “the terrorist” are robbed of their poignancy by the sheer magnitude of ignorance and stupidity these morons bring to bear upon it. They end up mocking whatever they think passes for an Arab or Muslim – typically a South Asian – and half-heartedly parrot the lie they’re being a “terrorist.” In reality they’re projecting the pea-brained idea that every Muslim is either a terrorist or a sleeper-cell supporter.
Thankfully, it’s become a rarity to witness “Indian” costumes for Halloween. But it still happens. In Canada where I live, the plan to obliterate aboriginals was executed by stealing children away from their families and placing them in residential schools where they were abused by servants of God in the hopes of making good white folks out of them. Acts and policies were promulgated to passive aggressively deny and paper-over their existence in the nicest, typically ineffectual Canadian way possible. The US was more direct in its approach, setting about the task of obliterating American Indians as Americans do best: with armed possies and a shitload of guns.
Given the revolting treatment of indigenous peoples in North America, it’s more than politically incorrect for non-indigenous people to engage in parodies for a Halloween gag. Certainly, this hasn’t stopped several US professional sports franchises and their millions of oblivious, adoring fans from doing just that. Right-thinking, sensible people shouldn’t follow that dubious lead. As a counterpoint, I imagine some owner deciding to call his baseball team the “Atlanta Honkies” and fashioned as the team mascot a bland dip-shit with a mullet who eats Spam sandwiches on white Wonder Bread, dances like a moron with a sparkling, toothy overbite, and berates non-white fans with racial epithets and invocations to go back to wherever it was they came from. Imagine, white people, how that would feel?
Actually, that might be quite funny. Can someone, anyone, come up with a racial slur or socially acceptable epithet that actually offends a white person?
In any case, being an “Indian” for Halloween, or at Coachella, or on a professional baseball team, or in any other cultural milieu dominated by white people, is offensive and lame. Seriously, cut it out.
And what to make of the uber-skimpy, almost naked Halloween costume? Uggh. It’s a political landmine in this day and age. Our culture should put a moratorium on its knee jerk impulse to sexualize absolutely everything until we’ve got this “being civilized” thing figured out. Of course, what I mean is until we’re certain men have finally got a grip on their sexual impulses. Given the spate of high-profile men whose success was unfettered in the least by the well-known fact of their having been serial, long-time sexual predators, it seems we have a few more generations to go before we root out the rape-acculturating attitudes in men.
We should applaud those self-assured enough to go virtually naked in public; those willing to act on the pretense that Halloween absolutely requires an injection of crass prurience to offset the ubiquity of macabre the season celebrates. No woman should worry that her choice of skimpy costume increases the odds that an entitled man sexually assaults her. No man should wear a speeedo or anything that too readily displays the dimensions and contours of his junk.
But hey, well-endowed ladies and gentlemen, if you want to strut your stuff on Halloween, do so as cat-woman, wonder woman, or Pebbles and Bam-Bam instead of Pocahontas, Sacajaweah, or Tonto the Stripper. Deal?
So here’s a challenge, avid Halloweeners: choose something fictional, tasteful, and age-appropriate as a costume. Be creative. Be a Muppet, a pirate, a character from Dr Who. Be a superhero, a gorilla, or a rooster. Just don’t be a Zulu tribesman, a Sherpa, a Geisha, a prostitute, or a parody of any creed of human beings.
If your costume depicts the cultural attire of a people who are not your own, refrain. If you’re a knucklehead like me, it’s not okay to mock your own kind. It’s like extending a hall pass to bigots, who’ll feel uninhibited as they fertilize the cultural landscape with their xenophobic views.
Bad taste may not be illegal, but it is not in the realm of exercising your right to free speech if you choose to be a racist dip-shit in your Halloween costume. It’s actually closer to hate speech, depending on how you play it. The everyday look of people in other parts of the world isn’t the makings of a Halloween costume; it’s their clothes. The differences we too often exaggerate for our entertainment are rooted in traditions, cultures, and religious beliefs whose nature we can’t fully understand. These are facets of human beings not rightly lampooned just because they appear foreign, exotic, or silly to us.
A little thought will go a long way to making sure you’re not being an insensitive jackass in your choice of attire for Halloween festivities. Your presence will add to the fun and enjoyment of others this year. It will increase the odds the little kids watching you won’t dance down a blissfully ignorant path instilling their minds in bigotry. Let’s not teach them to laugh derisively at different creeds on the pretense that laughing at others is “harmless good fun,” when it is, in reality, an instrument of blatant racism and by that turn, utterly detestable.
So get out there and suit up for a brighter future!