Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in “White-People Quarterly.” For a subscription, please consult your local pumpkin-spice retailer.
For years, brain scientists and education experts have searched for a way to make white people understand what not to wear to Halloween parties. In the 2016 annual secret Global White People’s Convention, a vote to issue a worldwide blackface warning failed by one vote (well, the convention is not so secret anymore since news of this year’s Charlottesville, Va., location was somehow leaked). Fortunately, I have created a foolproof method for teaching Caucasians how to choose costumes:
Ask yourself, “What would black people do?” (aka WWBPD).
Instead of trusting the instincts that came up with colonialism, gentrified sweet potatoes called “pumpkin spice,” and the idea that a dim-witted reality-TV star would make a good president, look to the actions of your darker-skinned brethren for guidance. No group of people know how to transform themselves into something they are not more than we do. We are pros at it. If you follow the tenets of how black people navigate the world every day, I promise you will never again be caught in an unflattering Instagram photo and being accused of cultural insensitivity or cosplay racism.
When is blackface OK?
There is much debate on what should and shouldn’t be considered blackface. Are all attempts at skin darkening considered blackface? Since blackface comes from the minstrel tradition, is it OK to wear darker makeup if you are dressing up as a Native American or paying homage to a historical figure?
WWBPD: Black people are uniquely qualified to answer this question because there are millions of us around the world who wear “whiteface” every day.
Whiteface is the phenomenon by which black people wake up each morning and do our best impression of the inoffensive Negro. We smile politely instead of showing our true emotions when someone asks to touch our hair. We pretend that the joke we heard wasn’t racist or that the woman didn’t clutch her purse a little tighter when we entered the elevator.
This is whiteface. We do this so we won’t offend white people. It’s not that we care so much about what you think of us; it’s just that we don’t want the trouble. That’s why we walk slowly behind white people in the parking lot of Target—so they won’t think we’re scaring them. It’s why I remove three decibels of bass from my voice before I speak to white people. It’s why we stand for the flag.
When I dress up as a superhero, I am called “the black Superman” or “the black Jon Snow.” What’s wrong with wearing a mohawk, gold chains and skipping the blackface part? People will still know you’re the “white Mr. T.” If you wear a Cavaliers jersey and carry a basketball, people will still know you’re “the white LeBron James.” There is nothing wrong with wearing whiteface; trust me.
When is blackface OK?
Is this cultural appropriation?
Recently a Facebook post went viral when the mom of a little girl wondered why her daughter couldn’t dress up as Disney Princess Moana. White Mom wondered why her daughter couldn’t cosplay that way if her daughter admired the little Polynesian princess and wasn’t making fun of her.
WWBPD: As one of the most resourceful people on earth, black people are great at making do with what they have. We can turn an oven into central heating for an entire home. We know how to turn a pig’s small intestines into a culinary delicacy. We are known for taking anything that doesn’t kill us, deep-frying it and turning it into a delicacy.
That is what Caucasians should do with whiteness on Halloween. Be more resourceful. Use what you have. Stay in your own lane. The white one.
By the way, have white people run out of white people to emulate? Have costume shops run out of sexy-nurse outfits? Why can’t people of no color be satisfied dressing up as one of the 12,028,034 other things that white people have the privilege of being every day? Be one of the other paleface princesses who get to wear a crown like a trophy for colonizing brown people. The only way to mimic a culture without appropriating it is by experiencing the bad things they went through.
So if your daughter thinks a Native American princess’s feathers and buckskin skirt are cute, she can wear it with one caveat: White men must come to your house in the middle of the night, steal all your food, murder everyone she knows, declare that your house is now theirs and force your daughter to relocate to a Halloween reservation especially set aside for all the little white girls who want to dress up as a pretty little Disney Indian.
It’s all about authenticity.
Should I be equally upset when black people dress up as white people?
Is there such a thing as reverse cultural appropriation? Should black people not dress up as white characters? Should you be upset when you see black people dressed up as white people?
WWBPD: Eighty-seven percent of the outrage you hear about blackface and cultural appropriation comes from white people getting offended on behalf of black people. It’s not that we don’t find those things distasteful; it’s simply that we understand one rule about America:
Wypipo gon’ white-people.
It’s difficult for us to be outraged by white people co-opting black culture when all culture is black culture. The music, dance, style and art of this country is just watered-down, secondhand, discarded black shit. Why should Oct. 31 be different from any other Tuesday? When you wear your Tiger Woods costume, we don’t get any angrier than when we listen to Kenny G play his milquetoast “jazz” or watch Miley Cyrus twerk.
We are used to it. We talk about it, but it ain’t that serious.
Why don’t my black friends want to wear a costume?
You have never seen a black person not wearing their costume.
You have never seen us without an inoffensive smile affixed to our black faces to soothe white souls. You have never seen the real pain, anger, weariness or discontent in our eyes. Paul Laurence Dunbar knew this when he wrote:
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.
If you saw it, you would get off your asses and work your fingers to nubs trying to change this country. Or maybe you would die from insomnia wondering when someone was going to sneak into your bedroom in the thick of the night and slit your throat from ear to ear. You couldn’t be a fence-sitter if you saw our unadorned naked souls.
WWBPD: You couldn’t handle it. It would eat your insides up and make you sick every day. You are not built like that. We are. You couldn’t poker-face your way through police bullets, education inequality, employment discrimination and a white supremacy presidency. Only we can. But even though we strap on that heavy, face-hiding armor and visor every day for our protection and yours ...
Everyone needs a day off.