(The Root) — The annual Halloween conversation surrounding race and costumes has become as much a part of the holiday tradition as trick-or-treating, pumpkin carving and sexy-everything getups.
If it's late October in America, you can count on the likes of the goofy donkey-riding "Hey Amigo," the political pun-inspired "Illegal Alien," the sexualized "Sake Sweetie" and the attempting-to-be-ironic "Gangsta Braids" being snatched from the shelves and the online inventories of costume stores. And don't forget their homemade (often more creative and more offensive) dress-up brethren.
Then there's the inevitable backlash against the way these physical representations of racial attitudes reinforce stereotypes about, mock or mischaracterize entire groups of people.
Next, the dialogue deteriorates ("Ignorant!" "Oversensitive!" "Political correctness gone wild!"), becoming old and useless faster than a jack-o'-lantern on Nov. 1.
Last year, Ohio University's STARS (Student Teaching Against Racism) Society's "We're a Culture, Not a Costume" campaign received national attention for its attempt to get ahead of the "not OK" offensive garb, with awareness-raising posters displayed around campus. President Sarah Williams told The Root that while 80 percent of the responses to the effort were positive or curious, 10 percent were "really negative and rooted in ignorance and white privilege."
And, from one perspective, that type of reaction — from those who lament that their racially themed fun would be ruined by having to consider its influence on others — is the most troubling and revealing part of this seasonal story.
It's the view that a blackface Barack Obama is fine, so long as it's the garb of a supporter versus a Tea Partier. Or that a white Dallas Cowboys' cheerleader in a Lil Wayne getup gets a pass because her African-American friends posed for pictures with her. It's the exasperation on the part of a "sexy" Pocahontas that political correctness is getting in the way of her fringe and feather-adorned, historically inaccurate style statement.
That kind of defensiveness is a symptom of the very attitude that stifles productive conversation about race for the other, noncostumed 364 days out of the year, says David J. Leonard, associate professor in and chair of the department of critical culture, gender and race studies at Washington State University, Pullam. "It just reflects how we talk about race in contemporary society," he says. "It reflects the overall belief that race doesn't matter, or that it only matters when people of color — who are accused of being overly sensitive, or 'playing the race card' — bring it up."
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.