Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Heckler's Censor

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.
Race and the Halloween Mask of Ignorance
Well, sexy-everything-but-non-white-people getups, anyway. The whole point behind the article is that dressing up as a negative ethnic stereotype, or, for that matter, just about anyone who isn't white "don't fly." If "culture costumes," as they are referred to, "tend to refer to very one-dimensional caricatures that are not at all authentic," and thus "these choices 'normalize whiteness' as the soccer mom or businessman in everyday clothes, thereby reinforcing inaccurate ideas about totally distinct racial and cultural communities," why does this only attach to white people who dress up as non-whites? The idea that Whites should find this practice as offensive as anyone else is conspicuous in its absence. Doesn't the Asian woman who slips into a costume designed to evoke a Scotswoman-cum-whore make a choice that "fits with a larger reality where, for the majority of [non-]whites, there's something pleasurable and empowering in imagining the beautiful [white] princesses in the past, and as sexual objects to be consumed?"
Utterly racist
This woman projects a stereotype of Asian women as hypersexualized self-propelled sex toys.
I suspect not. And the reason, I've come to believe, is simple. One of the points made in the captions to the slideshow, "9 Bad Excuses for Racist Costumes" and in the article itself, is that it doesn't matter what the person wearing the costume thinks, or is attempting to do.
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."
In other words, these costumes create or reinforce a feeling in the people being "mocked" that they are second-class citizens, sex objects and or criminals, and that matter more than the fact the person wearing the costume intends none of these things. Except, it seems for white people, who are immune from this sort of thing. Part of "white privilege" is the idea that a woman of Scots descent who sees an Asian woman dressed in a slatternly mockery of a tartan doesn't have an idea that an image of her as a sex object to be consumed is being kindled or stoked in the minds of the non-white people who see her thereafter. (And after all, if she does, it's because she's a racist anyway.)
Nothing wrong here
This woman, apparently, just wants to be Scottish for a day.
It may not be possible for many non-whites to adopt, in the near term, the money and the cultural preferences that white people have typically (or stereotypically) enjoyed, but we can, and should, adopt an attitude of not being caught up in what others think of us. There's a reason why there's no equivalent term for whites that carries the same level of disrespect that words like "Nigger," "Spic" and "Chink" do. Whites, for the most part, don't care what we think of them. It's somewhat possible to injure their feelings by referring to them as "racists," but they don't allow any word that would be used as a slur against them to get under their skin as we are often taught to do. Despite all of the negative connotations of the old South, it's impossible to use a single word to shame a white person with that history. For them, that was then (as was the day before yesterday, for that matter) and this is now. When a white person calls me Nigger, I am expected to feel the shame of a history of being oppressed, regardless of the context or the intention of the speaker. Most whites are simply not taught to feel shame based on my potential opinion of people who died a century or more ago, who just happen to share a skin tone with them, regardless of how vile they themselves feel those people were.

And consider; if I dress as a pimp for Halloween, I'm "appropriating other people of color who are unlike [my]self," and being offensive to other American blacks. But despite all of the opprobrium, disdain and outright hatred reserved for the Nazis, were I to put on the costume of a Gestapo officer, it would be considered offensive to Jews, even if I channeled "You Natzy Spy!" in the doing. Perhaps, were I be a hillbilly or a redneck, would someone be offended on behalf of whites, but only because I sided against oppressed and mocked poor people instead of the bourgeoisie that are our (sometime) "common  enemies."

We have to break out of this desire to create a "heckler's censor," where we allow others to determine our self-images, and then demand that they portray us only as we wish to be seen. Not out of "fairness" to whites - our problem is already that they need nothing from us in that regard. But if we continue to need something from them, we abdicate our validation and worthiness to people who, like us, have themselves to look out for.

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