TR: Explain what you mean by white privilege as it relates to wearing an offensive costume.
SW: There is a historical context to this, a history of white people painting their faces black and imitating black people in a degrading way. The majority culture doesn’t understand that. Granted, it is Halloween and it’s all fun, but look at the history and see how it affects people.
TR: So what makes a Halloween costume offensive or racist?
SW: Usually people always go for the negative aspect of the culture or the race, and all that does is reinforce negative stereotypes. Everyone wants to be “a thug” or “a criminal,” but nobody wants to be Thurgood Marshall, W.E.B. Du Bois or Barack Obama. Someone will dress up as “a dirty Mexican,” but no one’s going as [Supreme Court Justice] Sonia Sotomayor.
TR: Where does the “We’re a Culture, Not a Costume” campaign go from here?
SW: First of all, we want to say, “Thank you so much” to everyone for supporting us. We’re getting emails from all over, from the dean of Columbia University to students who’ve been discriminated against on their own campuses, to OU alums who are proud of what we’re doing. We’re hoping to do more posters next year, and we’re happy to let colleges use our posters and also donate to STARS so that we can continue to do this work.
TS: At the end of the day, I hope the campaign will transcend to be more than just an idea discussed in the context of Halloween, because racism — especially in its subtle forms, like this one — is a problem that we minorities face every day. Hopefully people have learned something from this. Or at the very least have taken the time to stop and think.
Helena Andrews is a regular contributor to The Root and author of Bitch Is the New Black, a memoir in essays. Follow her on Twitter.