Halloween seems to bring out the worst in some people. Each year, countless participants dress in racially charged costumes that hark back to an ugly chapter in history when it was OK for white people to crudely portray people of color. It’s always fun to dress up as whomever you want – or imagine yourself – to be. But it isn’t an excuse for us to forget about exactly who we’re portraying and how we’re portraying them through our costumes.
Dressing in racial drag reduces whomever your costume portrays to a skin color. If the only way you can portray someone is by altering the color of your skin, it implicitly says that you define people chiefly by race.
Furthermore, if people knew the disgusting history behind racial drag, they might be more reluctant to dress in it.
According to contributing editor at The New Inquiry Ayesha Siddiqi, “Racial drag was invented to control the representation of nonwhites (particularly on TV, film, and other media) and still does. It created racial archetypes that continue to echo in culture-wide understandings of people of color.”
So for people wondering what the big deal about racialized costumes is, the answer is pretty simple. The history behind blackface, brownface, redface and yellowface is one that is inextricably bound to the subjugation of people of color by whites.
Actress Julianne Hough recently found herself at the center of a costume controversy. Portraying the character Crazy Eyes from the Netflix series “Orange is the New Black,” Hough went in blackface. While those who know her personally have leapt to her defense and said that she meant no harm, her intent is irrelevant.
Blackface has a long history in the United States for its use in minstrel shows. Beginning in the early 19th century, white actors, using makeup, cartoonishly portrayed African Americans as being uneducated and poor, yet notably happy-go-lucky. The portrayals made slavery appear somehow mutually beneficial but were callous ways for whites to cleanse the image of slavery.
This is not a matter of being overly PC, as some may assert. This is a matter of basic human decency. If you cannot check your privilege for one night and not wear a costume that perpetuates a manifestation of white supremacy, then that may not make you a racist, but it does make you outstandingly ignorant.
To you, it may be “just a joke.” Just know that your joke is deeply imbued with the history of white people as solely manipulating the perception of people of color in the public consciousness. That sounds like a really awful joke, doesn’t it?