Not to mention, Leonard adds, the all-too-common attempt to respond to criticism with the “But I’m not racist” refrain is what he calls a misguided “What you are” versus “What you did” approach. In other words, many seem to forget that one needn’t be a card-carrying white supremacist to make a choice that imagines racialized communities as “other”; that plays upon a history of inequalities and stereotypes; that instigates, mocks and offends.
“There’s this sense of ‘I don’t know why people have to make it a big deal,’ ” says Leslie Picca, associate professor of sociology at the University of Dayton in Ohio, whose book Two Faced Racism: Whites in the Backstage and Frontstage examines inconsistencies in the presentation of white racial attitudes, using data gathered from the journals of students recorded across the U.S. Despite living in a heavily racialized society with racial gaps in wealth, health and education, she says, many (especially young people bred to believe they exist in a “colorblind” world) have trouble accepting the serious implications of what they choose to wear for a once-a-year holiday, even when those implications are brought to their attention.
But it’s not just the mindset of the college kid painting on the blackface before the keg party, the young woman hitting the dance floor as a “Seductive Squaw” or the suburban mom handing out candy as a geisha that matters, says Stephanie Troutman, assistant professor of women’s and gender studies and African and African-American studies at Berea College in Kentucky. What’s often lost in the discussion of the arguably innocent goals that inspire these costumes and the freedom of expression that allows them, she says, is the idea that “the context, the history and the signifiers matter,” and that “we have to look at the result versus the intention.”
This month, during which high school kids in blackface have already re-enacted Chris Brown’s beating of Rihanna, costumes that play on stereotypes about African-American criminality, Asian sexuality and Mexican illegality are as predictable a part of the holiday as candy corn and miniature chocolate bars. Undoubtedly, someone has stocked up on Fashion Fair makeup to represent Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas, in seeming unawareness of the country’s disturbing history with white people painting themselves brown.
But Leonard hopes those who have problematic attire brought to their attention will, at the very least, reconsider using their relative privilege to dismiss criticism, and choose to listen rather than “hiding behind a mask of ignorance about racism in America.” That, for the members of racial and ethnic groups who inspire the costumes — and for the country as a whole — would be something to celebrate.
Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root’s staff writer. Follow her on Twitter.