Halloween has always been an excuse to be something—or someone—else. Whether it was the Celtics dancing in animal skins or Catholics dressed up as saints and devils, October 31 was the day to shed your day-to-day persona in favor of something a little more interesting.
It’s no surprise that the specter of America’s past and post-racism future rear their ghoulish heads around Halloween. Some consider the holiday weekend as a free pass to wear costumes that highlight hurtful cultural stereotypes.
Reactions to offensive costumes sometimes conflate racism and ignorance. While you can’t have one without the other, ignorance does not always mean there is necessarily ill will behind the action.
But what is a nonminority experiencing when he or she throws on chains, slaps on a faux grill and slathers their body and face with shoe polish to become Lil’ Wayne?
Maybe by donning the apparel of otherness, the wearer can engage in a culture or type of behavior they wouldn’t typically allow themselves to enjoy. Does reveling in these stereotypes exude danger for them? Sex appeal? Edge? Something terrifying? Or is it another way to consume a culture? These costumes can be a form of “disposable blackness,” a friend mused. You can take all the mockable aspects of a race without having to think about what it actually means to be of that race or deal with their unique issues. Single use, no muss, no fuss (though it must be hell to wipe off all that makeup).
But is this form of racial tourism automatically racist?
No, said a man I recently encountered at a bar in New York City. Two weeks shy of Halloween but outfitted for a friend’s costume party, he stood before me wearing a Dwight Gooden New York Metsjersey. His face was covered in black shoe polish, save for his blue eyes, pink lips and a dot of white on his nose.
It’s 2011, he scoffed, offended by my presumption of racist intent. “If I as a white man were to just wear a Gooden jersey and have coke on my nose no one would get it,” he said. “Now people know who I’m supposed to be.”
The he pulled out that favorite Get Out of Jail Free card:“Besides, my black friend isn’t offended by it.”
My reaction to his appearance was visceral. The history of minstrelsy has been culturally imprinted on most Americans. It’s hard to erase the racist background behind the black makeup even in 2011. He might as well have done a soft shoe around the bar while speaking in that share cropping era Southern patois typically reserved for Disney crows.
Those wearing costumes often cloak their playacting in comedy. Much like Shawn and Marlon Wayans whitefaced turn in “White Chicks,” we laugh (or grimace) because we know they are pretending. Supposedly, we’re all in on the same joke: This is not who I am, which is what makes this costume – and my actions in it – funny.
Turning culture into a punch line inspired the widespread “We are a culture, not a costume” ad campaign created by Ohio University student organization STARS, or Students Teaching About Racism in Society.
When confronted in the past, most students didn’t understand why their attire would be considered offensive, said Keith Hawkins, vice-president of the organization. Organizers hope to move students beyond the “this is fun!” mentality and so they can understand why what they wear can incite uncomfortable feelings and anger. One example is throwing up gang signs to represent their idea of what it means to be black
“By going into black face and then showing those actions,” Hawkins said, “that’s insensitive to someone that’s going to put that stereotype on me because I’m an African American. That’s the kind of awareness and dialogue we wanted to happen.”
I didn’t pry deeper into the motives of the guy I encountered imitating Dwight Gooden. It’s hard to know what role he was playing besides a coke-addled baseball player. Maybe he was just committed to seeing a costume all the way through, down to Gooden’s melanin.
And really, who’s to say that Halloween costumes can’t be a way for Americans to stop treating race as such a taboo subject without any nuance? I’m not sure. But it’s a conversation worth having beyond this weekend, after the make up washes off and the fantasies get pushed to the back of the closet.