Below is a conversation Carrie Leilam Love and I had earlier today over G-chat about the recent post by Kjerstin Johnson on the Bitch blog entitled Don’t Mess Up When You Dress Up: Cultural Appropriation and Costumes. We were both struck by the amount of vitriolic comments the post received from readers who seemed to be defending the choice to be inadvertently (or overtly) racist for Halloween.
We decided to post our conversation in solidarity with Bitch and as a way to show that it’s possible for two people to have a complicated conversation about racism and cultural appropriation without descending into defensiveness and reductive thinking. I can’t get the spacing right, and we have a lot to say, so this is a somewhat dense post. Apologies. But it’s an experiment!
As always, we encourage our readers’ comments, but please be respectful and limit comments to constructive, thoughtful conversation.
Carrie: Have you seen the posters going around? the ones that say “This is my culture not a costume?”
Michael: I haven’t seen them in real life, only on the Internet but I like what I’ve seen so far. Especially because the people holding the posters look so sad. Like their feelings are hurt.
Carrie: Yeah, I’ve only seen them on the Internet too. But I didn’t know what to call that — “digital version of a real poster?” Do people even make real posters anymore?
Which comments were you reading on the article? Ones on the FB post or the online one?
Michael: Both man. The FB ones are particularly striking because you can see that everyone defending the right to have possibly racist costumes looks (at least) white. It’s sort of like, um…. do you guys notice a disturbing theme in your profile pictures here?
Carrie: I always wonder that same thing! Someone was telling me the other day about the comments on an article about the N-word sign at slutwalk. All the defenders were white and all the detractors were of color. It’s like — ok, which group is more likely to see this for what it really is? the group who is privileged by it or the group who is opressed by it? COME ON!
Michael: RIGHT? It’s also interesting to think about these things in terms of real life conversations. As in, if someone you knew told you that something you did hurt their feelings or made them feel disrespected, would you stand there and defend your right to make them feel like shit, or would you say “Wow, it was completely unintentional, but I’m sorry.”
Wouldn’t you want to work it out?
I know when I’ve been called on some shit by people, I might get a little defensive, but I always take a hard look at myself and try to figure out why they might be saying what they’re saying.
And I don’t know, I wouldn’t want to be the person defending my right to be unintentionally racist. I’d rather be the person reconsidering my motivations.
I REALLY WANT TO BE BOTH SEXY AND RACIST THIS HALLOWEEN STOP OPPRESSING ME!
Carrie: RIGHT? (I’m just going to start every comment with RIGHT? because the world is shockingly fucked up and you are always correct)
Carrie: …One of the things I seem to always run into is someone saying “But I am Native American/Japanese/Black and you are being racist for assuming that I’m not just because I look like a white person”
Michael: Yeah, that’s super tricky
Carrie: My thing is — WELL — if you LOOK like a white person that means you have white privilege.
Michael: Being white as fuck, I don’t really ever face that in myself. I pretty much know what to steer clear of.
I think that it’s true what you said about privilege and how you look, but then it gets REAL touch and go when people don’t identify emotionally with how they look physically. Because you don’t want to dictate to someone how they feel on the inside.
Carrie: Doesn’t mean that you cannot claim your cultural/ethnic/racial heritage and be proud of it — but seriously — that doesn’t make it ok it just makes it internalized. If my black friend was like, I’m going to be a hoodrat for halloween, I would be like, “That’s fucked up.”
Michael: Yeah, Because then you have class getting tied in!
Michael: I mean, these are particularly complicated combinations that are difficult to suss out, but I think there can be clear lines. Like if you’re 100% not a Geisha, maybe don’t dress as one. Just to play it safe and also because that’s a really played out costume anyway.
Carrie: Seriously — in this area, why not just err on the side of caution? It’s far from being “uptight” as many commenters accused — it’s called “My first priority is respecting fellow humans”
Michael: I don’t really understand wanting to dress as a cultural stereotype ANYWAY. I wonder what the point of dressing as a “drunken Mexican” or an “Islamic terrorist” is in the first place. Again, you can totally go as a sexy cat, which is also a great standby (not really).
Carrie: There are SO MANY ways to have fun without dressing up as a cultural sterotype — Bloody Unicorn, for example. That is fun and not racist.
Michael: Tell that to the Unicorn I offended that one year
Carrie: Yeah, what’s the appeal? Why would someone fixate on these things in the first place? I mean I know what I think…but how do they explain it to themselves?
Michael: I think on some level people are maybe trying to remove the power from racism itself? Like “oh it’s SO no longer important.”
Carrie: I think you are too kind with that assertion. I mean really? You think Jen Q. Citizen white college student was like, “i’m going to stamp out racism with this shanaenae costume?”
Michael: HAHAHAHA! No, I guess not. Then what is it? Is it just that people cartoon-ize cultures they’re not part of? Like “It’s a Small World” in Frat Guy form?
Carrie: I think it’s largely unconcious. I think that if people were able to understand that this behavior is offensive in a format where they don’t feel accused they might be less defensive.
LOL at “small world frat guy form”
Michael: I think so, too. I think the word “racist” is in and of itself problematic in these situations. Not that it’s completely unfounded, but that it’s like a language bomb. The problem with the word is that at this point ppl only associate it with overt, malicious intent.
Carrie: My idea for stamping out racism is to have a “Lot’s of nice people are racist” campaign. It’s like, yes, what you did is racist, and you have lots of racist ideas, it doesn’t mean i think you are the scum of the earth and deserve to die.
Michael: Right. It means you just need to think outside of yourself and your own experiences for a minute. And it means you need to be able to listen when someone tells you that your Geisha costume is more loaded than maybe you initially thought when you were looking at it in the costume store. And you need to not say “BUT JAPANESE PEOPLE DRESS UP AS GEISHAS!” Let’s start a campaign called “OOPS! RACIST!”
Actually, can all humans stop dressing up as Geishas?
Carrie: YES! And if you want to find a way to “honor” a culture you admire, why not find out what ways different communities in that culture need support?
Michael: Exactly. But that’s not the point of Halloween. The point of Halloween is to be someone/thing you are not. I bet Thomas McBee would have a lot to say about Jungian shadow theory here.
Carrie: Seriously, how is dressing up as as reductive stereotype and getting drunk “honoring” someone? Hey I’m going to dress up as your mom and get wasted and then send her a picture of it for mother’s day. Really I can’t think of a better way to honor her, how could you be upset by that?
Michael: And THEN what if I was like “hey, my mom’s not really like that and it really makes me upset and like you’re disrespecting my mom.” And then YOU were like “STOP OVERREACTING! I can shit all over your mom’s reputation if I want to. I think what you think is silly.”
Carrie: Exactly! I think the personalization of it is a good illustration. OOOHHH — dressing up as something you’re not! Well, we all know that the taboo is enticing. I’m always so facinated by people who are consistently obsessed/appropriative of cultures they were not born into.
Michael: Yes. Like how I am obsessed with the Arctic Explorers of the Gilded Age.
Carrie: Or how I’m obsessed with Edwardian ladies!
Michael: Except not like that, because there are no dominant negative assumptions about Gilded Age Arctic Explorers and so me dressing up as one is of no consequence. No one is harmed by me dressing like a white guy in a balloon. No one’s going to say to Michael Braithwaite “hey! you’re perpetuating the stereotype of Arctic Explorers being adventurous.”
Carrie: Someone might say, Hey! Michael Braithwaite! Arctic explorers were fucked up to Inuit people!
Michael: And they would be right. Because they were fucked up to them.
Carrie: …HA! Totally true. which maybe makes it apropos for halloween since a White dude with a hungerin for land is FUCKING SCARY!
And that brings me to another common defense of halloween racism — the extremist argument where someone says, “well, if you follow that logic to it’s endpoint, it’s never ok for anyone to dress up as anything ever.”
Michael: I HATE that argument. Because it leaves out the entire logical framework. You can’t remove the framework and follow it to its logical conclusion.
Carrie: YES to: “you can’t remove the framework and follow it to its logical conclusion”
Michael: Right?? Because the whole point is that there are certain groups who are marginalized by stereotypes, denied opportunities because of assumptions and stereotypes, and who have been historically murdered because of assumptions and ignorance and the seeking of power, so even if it’s only a costume, IT’S NOT THAT FUN TO PLAY INTO THAT HISTORY
Michael: The other argument I can’t stand is when people say “Does EVERYTHING have to be so complicated and deep? Do we have to think about EVERY LITTLE THING?” Well, yeah. Sorry to inconvenience you. Unfortunately we inherited a world where it’s actually best to think about most things unless you are completely unconcerned with your fellow humans.
Carrie: I’m so tired of being accused of being “PC” or “Uptight.” Since when is respecting everyone’s humanity “uptight?” Sorry if you don’t know how to have fun without being an asshole.
Michael: HAHAHA! T-SHIRT IDEA!
Carrie: To me, it’s the people who immediately go on the defensive and can’t understand that I’m talking to them human to human who are uptight!
Yes, kindness is key!
Michael: Have you been told you’re uptight a lot?
Carrie: I have, and it’s a constant argument I see in online forums when it comes to issues like this.
Michael: Yeah. That’s people not wanting things to be complicated. Complication scares people or makes them feel like they’re going to fuck up at every turn.
Carrie: And probably they will! Like we all do! But it’s OK! How else will we learn and grow and build relationships?
Michael: That’s exactly true. We all fuck up. It just happens. Someone informing you that your costume is [accidentally] offensive is not calling into question your existence as a good person. They’re just saying “OOPS! RACISM!”
Carrie: About kindness… what i said before about lots of nice people being racist.. I really, really mean that. It’s funny because it’s true, but I take it seriously also. I think racism comes from ignorance and fear and lots of genuinely good-hearted people are socialized into it.
Michael: Yeah. When it comes down to it, we’re all unintentional racists. Everyone. And there are power structures at play, but all races have stereotypes about other races. We live in a world that values reductive thinking, we’re bound to reduce other humans to things. What’s important is that we remember that that doesn’t make it right and if someone kindly lets you know that you’re hurting an entire culture’s feelings, you might want to try to cultivate a sense of openness and hear them.
Carrie: That is 100% true. And the power structures you mention are what set up the lines of conflict. Because it wouldn’t really matter if people held stereotypes if some of those peole didn’t have power over other people and make legislation and policy decisions that affect people’s lives and well being based on racist ideas.
Michael: EX-ACTLY! And THAT’S why white people get all touchy. They think that everyone’s saying “only white people do this! they’re evil!” When in fact, the problem is that white people have just been the ones to make cultural stereotyping a weapon, rather than an unfortunate aspect of humanity.
Carrie: YES AGAIN!
Michael: PRINT IT!
So being a white dude dressing as Pocahontas for Halloween brings with it an entire painful history even if MAYBE said white dude just really really liked Pocahontas the Disney movie.
And that’s all he was thinking about when he picked out his costume. Which would be weird in a different way, but whatever.
I mean, that was a crappy movie. Anyway.
Carrie: HA HA HA HA
Ok, my brain is starting to hurt a little, because I’m sick and haven’t eaten much and because this conversation on top of everything going on with Occupy Oakland and THE WORLD AT LARGE is swarming in my head and I feel angry and like laughing and a little woozy all at once…
Michael: You need some soup. Maybe you should have angry laughter and then you’ll sound like a super villain, which would be awesome.
Carrie: Maybe I should be a super villain for halloween!
Michael: I’m going as a shark. Or maybe I’ll go as frontal lobes so as to encourage everyone to embrace critical thinking and empathy.
Carrie: I’m sorry Michael. That is so disrespectful. Shark’s are people too, you know. Sharks are a species, not a costume. HA HA HA! See? I have a sense of humor! I’m not just universally uptight! Also the frontal lobes idea is bizarre and hilarious!
Michael: I don’t think they sell giant frontal lobes at the Halloween store. I actually thought for a second “oh shit, what if I run into a shark and its all ‘that’s not cool, humans make soup out of us and have for centuries.'” Then I’d have to say “Oh man. I’m sorry. I’ve never even had that kind of soup, so I totally didn’t even think about it that way, but I can see how this would make you feel weird.”
Ok, gotta run! More of life’s problems solved by CLL and MVB! Hope you feel better, hon.
Carrie: We should have an advice column.
Carrie: thanks! love you!
Michael: Love you too!