CONTENT NOTE: This piece will discuss issues of racism, misogyny, misogynoir, and domestic violence.

by Shane Thomas

You’re not to know this about me, but I hate Halloween. I always have done. Even when I participated in ‘trick or treat’ on a couple of occasions when I was a child, I was secretly wishing I was back home controlling the adventures of Super Mario on my old NES.

But my problems with Halloween go beyond any individual dislike of crowds of people and dressing up. While many look forward to this time of year – some of my friends among them – this is often a frustrating and enraging time for people of colour.pumpkin

If you’ll indulge me this digression; Back in the 17th and 18th centuries, London society was dominated by the aristocracy during the summer months. A key element of this era being the parties, often used for the purpose of wealthy families arranging for their progeny to be married. One can often hear the phrase, “It’s the height of the season”, excitably uttered in television and film set during this period.

So, while it would be incorrect to dub October 31st as “racism season” (after all, racism functions on a year round basis), Halloween is often the day of racism’s biggest party.

Every year, we see a panoply of cultural appropriation, often in the form of white people dressing up in blackface, as Native Americans, geishas or “terrorists”[1].

This racism often intersects with sexism[2], with many costumes appearing with the prefix of “sexy”. Not only does this illustrate the narrow societal understanding of what counts as sexy, but also insists that women[3] put themselves on show, whether they want to or not.

One of the most pernicious aspects of various groups being reduced to a singular costume is that it erases the nuance, depth, and plurality of a people. Part of the oxygen that allows white supremacy to breathe is the unspoken belief that white people are capable of anything, but people of colour can only ever be one thing.

Part of why many who participate in this (often overt) racist appropriation think nothing of it, is that the atmosphere around Halloween is one of childlike jollity, a time to put the everyday stresses of life to one side, and revel in the self-indulgent fun of the occasion.

However, all this fun is reserved for the most privileged when oppressed groups are crushed into one-dimensional cartoons. And reducing us to cartoons makes it easier to cause us everyday harm – even after Halloween. It’s why it’s so easy to laugh at the travails of Daffy Duck in Looney Tunes’s ‘Hunting’ trilogy, because we know it’s not real violence.

But we’re not cartoons. These costumes, and their effects, are harmful. Let’s not forget this all exists in addition to the quotidian manifestations of bigotry.

Plenty of wise words have been written to try and ameliorate this damaging behaviour; be it from Everyday Feminism, the Intersectional Feminism tumblr, Melissa McEwan, Trudy from Gradient Lair, or Blair. L. M. Kelley breaking down the racist history of blackface.

And yet, I carry a cloak of weariness just thinking about Halloween, because I know what’s going to happen. Let’s be honest. We all know. In about a week’s time[4], we’re going to see costumed racism vomited onto our computers and smartphones. We might even be forced to see it in person.

It seems the only option is to heed the words of Daniel Jose Older. Halloween may be a time of revelry for some, but for others, it’s just another reminder of our place in society’s pecking order.

To bring this back to my own country, I sometimes hear complaints that people of colour (especially immigrants) don’t make the effort to “integrate” into British society. Well, why would anyone want to integrate into a society that permits this?

26/10/14 UPDATE: It’s both sad and inevitable that a postscript is required for this piece.

One area where I failed with this piece was not mentioning that to remain relevant, oppressive cultural practices have to ensure that they are timely. This is why last Halloween we saw pictures of people mocking the killing of Trayvon Martin and blacking up as the “Crazy Eyes” character from Orange is the New Black[5].

IMG_20141026_011125One of the main stories of oppressive and violent behaviour in 2014, was the assault of Janay Rice by her (now husband), former NFL player, Ray Rice.

While the only decent reaction would be to have sympathy for Janay Rice, many have leveraged her pain for Halloween costumes. Notice I say “many”. That link isn’t one aberrant example. It really isn’t[6].

This is the state of play. If you’re on the receiving end of oppression during the other days of the year, kyriarchy reserves a special place for your suffering during October.

Given that Janay Rice was repeatedly erased in the debate around her assault, I feel it’s only fair to let her have the last word; “It’s sad that my suffering amuses others.”

[1] – And of course, this “terrorist” costume always evokes a brown person.

[2] – And last year, ableism showed up to this kyriarchal party.

[3] – Albeit, a limited subset of women.

[4] – Did I say “about a week’s time”? I actually meant last weekend.

[5] – It’s also telling that the Google autofill function doesn’t come into effect when you search for “Julianne Hough blackface”, “Julianne Hough racism”, or even, “Julianne Hough Crazy Eyes”.

[6] – Had I the stomach to continue scouring the internet, it’s likely I would have found even more.

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 “Two Weeks Notice” is Shane Thomas’s bi-monthly column encompassing. “Pop culture to sport, and back again“

A mixed-race film graduate, Shane comes from Jamaican and Mauritian parentage. He has been blogging about sport since 2010 at the website for The Greatest Events in Sporting History. He is also a contributor to ‘Simply Read’, the blogging offshoot of the podcasting network, Simply Syndicated. A lover of sport, genre-fiction, and privilege checking, Shane can be found on Twitter, both at @TGEISH and @tokenbg (and yes, the handle does mean what you think it means).

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11 thoughts on “Halloween, Racism’s Biggest Party

  1. So should I ever get dirt, soot or other dark staining material upon my face regardless of intent I have made a racist statement or perpetrated a racist act? Good to know. Looks like I’m carrying wet knaps for the rest of my life.

    To be be fair the charge of not reading the article was a little harsh on my part and I do apologize. However the people wearing the face paint declared their intent as non-racially motivated and cited a particular historical interpretation. You are of course free to proscribe to the contrary opinions in mentioned in the article or to call those people naive in the extreme. Unless of course you think they’re stealth racists carefully hiding their true and heinous agenda. If that’s not the case though, using their costumes as an example of a reason to hold the rest of the country at cultural arms length speaks more ill of you than them.

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    1. You do know they didn’t just “get dirt” on their faces? They didn’t stumble out of the mine after a hard day’s work, and just happen to have their picture taken. Can you genuinely not tell the difference?

      Thanks for the apology. I can’t judge whether these people are stealth racists or not. I don’t know them. But whether they are is pretty irrelevant. One’s intention can be benign, but that doesn’t lessen the impact of blacking up their faces.

      The excuse of historical tradition isn’t a solid foundation when that tradition may reinforce an axis of societal oppression, intended or otherwise.

      Here’s a good piece that came up in the course of my research about the incident. After all, should anyone’s tradition be one that makes an oppressed group feel unwelcome – http://internationalsocialistnetwork.org/index.php/ideas-and-arguments/analysis/508-emma-rock

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      1. The dirt on the face thing was my way of showing that intent does matter. I have among other things had a massive burn pile for brush and ancient farm detritus that left my face covered with soot. Had some one come along and seen me, who knows what their response would be particularly if they got upset and did not give me a chance to explain the circumstance. You’re correct that intent does not lessen the impact but it should temper it and affect the response.

        The whole charge of reinforcing an axis of societal oppression is frankly difficult to discuss. It is frankly really hard to discuss where the proverbial borders exist on what does and does not contribute. Sure the egregious offenses are easy but the more subtle and even unintentional (which seems to be part of your focus) are much harder to call as to which side of the line they fall on.

        Now about the feeling unwelcome charge; this one is in its own way trickiest of all. Let me paint you a scene to illustrate where I going to go with this. A young man of colour stops at a pub stops at a pub for a bite while travelling. At some point he heads to the restroom. A large caucasian man with a shaved head and tattoos says “Don’t go in there. Use the ladies.” In that split second the young man could reasonably feel insulted maybe so much so as to throw a punch. If he instead stops and asks why he gets the response “Mens is broken.” That initial feeling of of being unwelcome and even insulted makes sense but being open to other possibilities was key in this example. Could this story have gone the other way? Absolutely but being open to all possibilities leaves the chance for better outcomes. Just as people need to be cognizant of other’s feelings, it is also incumbent to release negative feelings in the face of new information. This circles back to the whole intent thing.

        P.S. Sorry for the long response and thanks for the link.

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        1. No need to apologise for the length of your reply. While the hypothetical scenarios you’ve proposed aren’t invalid, they also don’t apply to the specific example I referenced in the piece.

          This wasn’t a case of soot covering one’s face in an unavoidable occurrence. This was a deliberate application to the face, in order to darken it. It’s alarming how it’s not obvious to some how that (maybe unintentionally) reinforces racism.

          In terms of the borders of what counts as oppression, a good place to start is to listen to the people being oppressed.

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          1. The hypotheticals were intended to illustrate my points: one that intent and context matter more than the image itself, two that an initial emotional response while understandable is not necessarily the right one.

            I guess now we get to the real crux of our discussion. Painting one’s face should not in and of itself reinforce racism or be thought to do so. Intent and context should count for so much more as to what is or is not racist or reinforces racism. Is there a history that is part of the context that cause people to jump to the conclusion that it reinforces races? Sadly yes. Let’s break the chain though and stop reinforcing the negative parts of the past giving this negative power to what could be an innocent act. This is not a call to forget that painful history but a call to not infuse that history into everything that remotely resembles it. What reinforces racism is anger, hate, fear, and ignorance. Those morris dancers are not a parody so they can’t be said to reinforce anything race related unless an outside party chooses to see it that way. Thanks to history the initial response may go to the negative but I refer back to point about moving beyond the initial and being open to the actual context.

            As for the borders of oppression, it’s good place to start but not always a guaranteed metric. The cynic in me cites teenagers and their various cries of parental oppression.

            Thanks for the discussion. i hope you feel it is a positive one. (Not cutting you off or anything. Just calling it a night.)

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            1. That’s fine. Didn’t think you were cutting me off. I also had to go to bed at that point.

              Sadly, you appear to have misunderstood that good intentions count for little if they cause harm. I can’t know 100%, but my guess is that those Morris Dancers meant no malice. I can easily believe they didn’t think about trying to hurt black people. The problem is I can also believe they didn’t think about black people at all.

              In some ways, it would be lovely if the actions of today weren’t influenced by past occurrences. But that’s simply not possible. It’s no more possible for those who deliberately black their faces up to remove it from past context, than it is for me stop speaking English.

              We can’t pick or choose what context we decide to receive specific behaviour in, in terms of what suits. Black people shouldn’t have to move beyond blackface, as they were – and are – the victims of its connotations.

              If a Jewish person was (rightly) disgusted by someone dressing up in an SS uniform for Halloween, would you suggest they should move past it?

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              1. Showing up to party dressed up as an SS officer where not everyone there is your friend is a bad idea. Showing up in that uniform to a movies set as an extra in a WW 2 movie is not remotely harmful or offensive. Why? Context and intent are what matters. The act of dressing up itself isn’t the real source of harm.

                There is no arguing that the historical context will not over shadow the initial reaction. I’m not trying dismiss or minimize that but I think it’s fair to say that the for real growth and healing we can’t just live in and be ruled by those reflexive emotional reactions. Our own discussion is decent example of how it’s important to continue past the initial. Had I failed to post again with an apology, you would have been perfectly justified in thinking me just another internet jerk. You may still think that but hopefully the apology helped.

                Your larger article is well received. There are plenty of examples of costumes that show incredibly poor taste and not just the ones that have a racial element. Humor has long danced around sensitive lines and there are more than a few people who stumble across those lines. Now when some one stumbles across those lines then the offended parties have an important choice. They can take their pain and use it to fuel blasting the offending person/s (socially not physically I hope) and that would be understandable. Alternatively the offended person/s can politely confront the offending party with the impact of their action. Why bother? Having that discussion at least makes it possible that the moment is just another awkward story that maybe led to a learning experience instead of a another pebble of pain and ignorance that adds to the mountain that separates people (man does that sound like so much hippy dippy feel good BS).

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                1. Yes, context does matter. To use your example, if those people were blacking up because they were acting in a film set during a time when consensus regarded it as socially acceptable, that would make sense. But you’re giving me hypotheticals. I’m talking about a specific incident that actually happened. An incident that was wrong.

                  The problem with your argument about being ruled by emotions is that it’s never incumbent on the injured party to bring about growth and healing. It’s incumbent on the person who caused the injury to listen to those they hurt, sincerely apologise, and go out of their way to make amends. It’s not PoC’s job to stop racism. It’s not women’s job to stop sexism. It’s never the oppressed person’s job to stop being oppressed.

                  That’s the problem with that specific incident, and so many other examples that I list in the piece. It’s people doing something that causes harm to others, not listening to those that they hurt, and not taking the time to educating themselves so that they don’t repeat their behaviour.

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    2. “So should I ever get dirt, soot or other dark staining material upon my face regardless of intent I have made a racist statement or perpetrated a racist act?”

      Are you always this wilfully stupid or do you just reserve it for trying to find ways to excuse racism?

      #Sheesh!

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  2. “To bring this back to my own country, I sometimes hear complaints that people of colour (especially immigrants) don’t make the effort to “integrate” into British society. Well, why would anyone want to integrate into a society that permits this?”

    Somebody failed to read the very article they were citing. The blacked-up morris dancers were not racially motivated at all but rather an effort to achieve anonymity in as economically viable way as possible.

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    1. You know the, “it’s not about race” argument comes up often whenever people use blackface. I’ve already heard it over the weekend in regards to this upcoming Halloween.

      Whatever the reasoning, deliberately blacking ones face up isn’t okay. Is that something you honestly need explaining to you?

      I did read the article I was citing. I read it three times when preparing to write the piece. It’s called research. Or do I have to explain to you what that is as well?

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