I remember Halloween. It used to be exciting when I was in elementary school. It’s been years since I put on a costume and tramped around the neighborhood filling my plastic Halloween jack-o-lantern with candy. The last time I officially trick-or-treated, I was a chaperone for my cousins, taking them house-to-house when I was in high school. Sometimes, when I was in college, I’d go to my line sister’s house and give out candy in her neighborhood. (Trick-or-Treaters never bothered to come to my apartment building.) It made for a pleasant night–chatting, giving out treats, and checking out the costumes.
Halloween has taken a decidedly ugly turn in the past decade or so. For me, the first hint of it was some years ago when I heard about people dressing as Kim Kardashian and Reggie Bush, but in blackface. October has become “the season of ‘acceptable’ blackface.” Every year there are pictures of grown folks, often posted on Facebook pages, wearing all manner of minstrel-inspired outfits. When questioned or challenged about the pictures, they often argue that they were not racist, then claim they did not know it was racist to wear blackface, and finally give an insincere mea culpa apologizing if they offended anyone.
Three years ago, at my former university, there was a Halloween party thrown by dental school students in which some guests dressed in blackface/brownface. The pictures were, of course, posted on Facebook and eventually made it to the chair of Black Studies. Black students, who numbered only nine or ten, were aggrieved and charged that the behavior at the party was just a symptom of a larger problem–the racism they experienced on campus. While there were black faculty who were willing to speak to the administration on their behalf, it is unclear whether anyone did. Eventually, the university issued an e-mail denouncing the students’ actions and confirming its commitment to diversity. The students involved had to write letters of apology to those who were offended.
I was teaching an African-American history survey at the time, and I discussed the incident with my students. Some students were clearly offended. One of my black students argued that “we” should retaliate by wearing “whiteface.” I understood his desire to lash out or fight back in some way. But blackface trades on the history of the nineteenth-century minstrel show, the ridicule of black people, and the imagery and ideology of slavery and so-called black inferiority; dressing in whiteface would make him a mime. It was a false equivalency.
There have already been numerous blackface incidents this year, both nationally and internationally, and Halloween has yet to arrive. A young Australian woman, who incidentally wants to go to Africa and teach children English, celebrated her 21st birthday with an ode to Africa party. Some guests dressed in blackface, another as a Klansman. A Halloween masquerade party attended by the fashion elite in Milan featured some people (more brown than blackface) dressed as slaves, complete with shackles. Several other guests donned their best blackface minstrel outfits à la Thomas “Daddy” Rice or Al Jolson. All of this was allegedly inspired by the theme “Disco Africa.” Back in the United States, pictures surfaced of “blackface Trayvon Martin,” with a bloody bullet hole stain on his hoody. And finally, Julianne Hough, who was formerly on Dancing with the Stars, paid blackface “tribute” to the television series Orange Is the New Black by dressing as the character known as “Crazy Eyes” for a party last weekend.
Maybe Halloween was always this way, and I was too naïve to know it. Or, maybe the internet has made it worse because people constantly post pictures of every minute of their waking lives. Either way, I’m done with Halloween. It seems to be all tricks and no treats. Racist adults have ruined it for me. There is not much I can do about people who think it’s appropriate to dress up in blackface, but I find some solace in the fact that once posted, the pictures NEVER go away.