Blackface is as predictable around Halloween as candy, and by now the outrage in response is also pretty predictable. Julianne Hough was still apologizing two years after her ill-advised use of Halloween blackface in 2013 as an homage to her favorite TV character, Crazy Eyes from “Orange Is the New Black.” The anger after a Facebook post featuring a mother who used blackface as part of her children’s Halloween costumes resulted in a prompt takedown of their picture and disavowal from the military base on which the photo was taken.
Plenty of white people, including parents who watched Disney pull its “Maui” zip-up suit costume from store shelves last year in response to accusations of brownface, are probably wondering when, if ever, it’s OK to dress up as a figure of another race.
The answer: It depends. Like most issues involving race in our country, it requires thinking about not just stereotypes or discrimination but also white supremacy.
One problem with racism is that it advances white supremacy — not just the notion that white people are superior, but also that they are the baseline, the default, the standard in our society. Conduct that presents white people as normal while presenting other groups as exotic (the “magical negro,” for instance) is racist. Behavior that positions nonwhite groups as behind, or sometimes even ahead (East Asians are a “model minority,” for another) is also racist.
The tragedy of white supremacy is that it casts whites as ordinarily and fully human, while those of us outside of ordinary — behind, ahead, exotic or something else altogether — are denied full humanity. Living life as the standard is powerful, and that power provides protection, status and agency. Going through life being perceived as abnormal, however, can lead to any number of vulnerabilities. To see others turn the signifiers of that vulnerability into a Halloween costume just adds insult to the injury.
White supremacy, then, can seem benign, as in the case of kids who just want to look the way “Indians” or Polynesian characters look in movies but never in their everyday lives. And white supremacy can be masked as “cross-cultural understanding,” as in the case of parents who “honor” less powerful groups by adorning their children in native or ceremonial dress without understanding the significance of, or appropriate context for, the clothing. Absent that understanding, entire peoples are turned into objects — costumes — for fun. And when we objectify people, we are more likely to take from, harass or hurt them.
Don’t be fooled by false equivalencies: Sporting an afro to look like Angela Davis is simply not the same as donning a blond wig to be Marilyn Monroe. The latter look is identified with by a more powerful racial group that has been considered the standard, while the former references a hairstyle that young black girls are still punished for wearing to school.
This doesn’t mean that white children can never dress up as nonwhite public figures they admire, or that the national dress of other countries can never be worn by non-natives. But focus on individuals rather than groups, as entire peoples — especially those historically denied power — should not be made into costumes. The most significant component of your costume shouldn’t be the color of a person’s skin. Focus instead on a distinctive style or demeanor. W.E.B. Du Bois sported bow ties and groomed a dashing mustache. Who could forget J. Lo’s all-white outfit for the 2000 MTV Video Music Awards?
Finally, when in doubt, just don’t do it. Your or your child’s desire to have fun or be funny doesn’t outweigh the concerns of people around you who don’t want to be caricatured (again) as strange, exotic, abnormal, or different for your amusement — especially when their existence is shaped by challenges with which you don’t grapple. Dealing with power and white supremacy requires caution, and erring on the side of deference is an expression of power we can all get behind.
Osamudia James is a professor and vice dean at the University of Miami School of Law.