White privilege means getting to be black one day of the year. But we are black always, says Khadijah Costley White.
This week’s internet meme is Racism: The Halloween Edition. All over the Web, people have been posting photos of folks doing insanely offensive racial mimicry or mockery. Clearly, no one’s seen this new poster campaign launched by students at Ohio State University, reminding everyone that people are not costumes. Or, you know, just taken the 10 seconds required to realize that their Halloween getup is such a terrible, very bad, horrible, no good idea.
Everyone seems shocked by such behavior. But it seems to me that the surprise is more rooted in their shock that people would engage in a racial faux paus than the actual humiliation and denigration of people of color that such an act conveys. “It’s a simple mistake,” one Gawker reader explained of actress Julianne Hough’s recent donning of blackface (pictured above). Or, as another commenter put it “We’re not born knowing everything…She probably didn’t mean to be a jerk.”
Right, I mean, there’s no clear instructions on how to not to be racist. How could any decent, good-hearted white person be expected to know that painting your skin brown and pretending to be a member of an oppressed, formerly enslaved and systematically executed, raped, and brutalized group might be wrong?
But, here’s the thing: The issue with these costumes, much like racism, is not about offending black people. Lots of things offend people—dog poop on the sidewalk and picking your nose on public transportation is on my list. The issue with these costumes is about the way they violently reenact and become complicit in the systemic, traumatic, institutionalized, and legalized exploitation of an entire group of human beings at the hands of another power-wielding group. Black people are not some sort of crotchety version of Emily Post, constantly standing on guard to make sure white people don’t use the wrong fork or say nigger too often. We’re just people, trying to live without being regularly reminded that your great-grandparents possibly owned ours.
Over recent years, people have come to trivialize the black experience in America with blithe comparisons to slavery and lynching. Last month, an executive at AIG made waves when he complained that the criticism he endured due to his company’s multi-million dollar bonuses was just like being lynched. Fashion interns quoted in articles have frequently referred to their competitive internships as “slave labor,” with one style blog asking “Modern Fashionistas: The New Slaves?” (They more closely resemble indentured servitude, but I guess that doesn’t have quite the pizzazz). Even Ben Carson, the most recent token black GOPer to take the headlines, recently claimed that the Affordable Care Act was the worst thing to happen to blacks since slavery.
Let’s be clear. Lynching was being dragged, kicking and screaming, out of your home and away from your family. It was your fetus being ripped from your womb as you hung from a tree. It was being burned to death, after being dismembered, your breasts, penis, and toes being distributed to onlookers as mementos to take home. It was this. And, as the new, highly praised film Twelve Years a Slave reminds viewers, slavery was a genocide in slow motion*.
It was over 2 million people who died in the Middle Passage alone, some choking on their own tongues swollen by disease while others were thrown overboard to be drowned or eaten by sharks when ships wanted to lighten their load. It was the trauma of being pregnant with a child you knew you’d never see grow up, over and over again. It was never owning one item that was yours, including yourself. It was being mated with other people like livestock, or being brutally and repeatedly raped on a regular basis. It was having a slaveowner’s wife crush your head with her rocking chair or being hit in the head so hard by your master that you had seizures for the rest of your life. And it was doing all that while still building the infrastructure and economy of one of the most successful countries in the world with no compensation. Ever (not even for your descendants).
It was all of that being legal, upheld and defended by what we still call “the justice system.” It was all of that being, according to many of our forefathers, perfectly acceptable, moral, and even praised. The worst of mankind is what folks are performing when they wear minstrel blackface costumes or pose with nooses around their neck to have Halloween fun.
Even supposedly progressive or liberal groups draw on black suffering as symbolic in order to further their own cause. Last year, PETA argued that the constitutional amendment written in order to free black people from slavery should be similarly applied to show animals. During its Marriage Equality campaign, the Human Rights Coalition frequently made appeals that drew on parallels to black people’s treatment under de jure segregation. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a workers’ rights group that advocates for undocumented immigrants, even jumped on the bandwagon with their recent anti-slavery campaign. In this version of slavery, the United States government is the good guy that helps the CIW fight bad bosses who mistreat, injure, illegally detain, transport, and even kill their vulnerable employees.
But such narratives evoke slavery’s memory in America without extending a hand to its ongoing legacy—the still-present disparities and exploitation of African-Americans. When and where does PETA argue for leveling the racial playing field with policies like affirmative action? When will the HRC help fight Stop and Frisk or lobby against the discriminatory voting laws that became permitted at virtually the same moment of their campaign’s success? Without such actions of solidarity, these groups treat black folks as rhetorical tropes, not comrades. Not people. Moreover, such wordplay tends to erase what slavery was in America. Imagine, for one moment, every bad thing that someone could do to you—now imagine it being justified by virtually every single moral, religious, and judicial code that governed the land.
Apparently for some folks, black oppression is a thing you mock before going trick-or-treating. But for most black folks, the ongoing execution and caging of innocent or unarmed people of color sends a signal that we are still not considered fully human. It confirms the findings of recent studies that suggest that people find it hard to empathize when it comes to black pain and suffering. And this doesn’t just mean we get less help with real, physical pains for bodily injuries or illnesses. It means we also endure a society that constantly tells us that, with just a few historical tweaks, we would still be slaves. Should be slaves.
I am often reminded that black people were slaves in this country much longer than we’ve been free. And these “costumes” can be viewed as an implicit threat; by treating black people as an object, they reenact a time in which we were legally seen as objects that could be sold and bought. Such reenactments suggest in their embodiment that just as easily as it was granted, our freedom can be taken away. White privilege means getting to be black one day of the year—we are black always.
There’s nothing daring or radical about making fun of a murdered black boy or the not-so-historical lynchings of black people. Believe it or not, all you “edgy” blackface-donning white folks are just rehearsing a very old script, written for you by slave owners, kidnappers, rapists, and thieves. As Lindy West pointed out, ironic racism is just racism. But worst of all, while we respond to these types of spectacles as though they’re rude, impolite, or thoughtless, in reality they’re malicious, full of hate, threatening, and based in real everyday experiences of oppressed people. They’re not bad jokes or distasteful outfits—they’re meaningful messages that convey just how little we’ve come in restoring black and white humanity since 1865.
America’s long history of black oppression has turned even the most routine activities of our lives—like Halloween parties or sorority gatherings—into cruel, sadistic, and corrupt events. Until we fix the way we talk about race and racism and start thinking of oppression as a societal sickness (and not a black, Asian, or indigenous one), the banality of this evil will remain with us. As one of my relatives might put it, “Tell the truth, and shame the devil.” Or, in my own words: Be honest, be open, and do something to stand with (not against) marginalized people. Otherwise, you and that Klansman you’re pretending to be don’t seem all that different.
*Full disclosure: I still haven’t watched this movie. I’m not sure I can.
Khadijah Costley White is a faculty member in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. Find her on Twitter here.