When the film Dear White People came out in limited release here in DC, I and a group of friends made a night of it. We were a diverse lot — black, white, Asian, young, youngish, and young-at-heart — a fairly far cry from the stark segregation of the film’s fictional Winchester University. I thought the movie was beautiful and funny, but it left me with a lot to unpack, much of which I’m still unpacking.
Without spoiling the movie for those who haven’t seen it, the major story arc involves a hip-hop themed party at the predominantly white and wealthy residence hall on campus. We’ve seen pictures of real-life parties like these — young white adults dressed in blackface, wearing Afro wigs, and very deliberately mimicking stereotypical depictions of blackness. In fact, the movie includes a few of these real-life pictures in its closing credits, reminding all of us that what the film was satirizing isn’t too far removed from reality.
And in 2014, it’s still close to it.
Every year around Halloween, we’re subjected to the poor judgment of those who would lampoon a very serious subject and somehow manage to insult an entire group of people in the process. This year, it’s the Ray Rice elevator incident:
If you missed this amazing racism and pro-DV bs posted to Instagram by @RitterZac (account now locked) pic.twitter.com/7ULCxhVfVC
— Keith Olbermann (@KeithOlbermann) October 26, 2014
I won’t post others, and there are many, sadly. You can view them here, if you must.
If that isn’t bad enough, I present to you the sexy Ebola nurse costume:
WTF is so “sexy” about a disease that has killed nearly 5,000 people, I don’t know.
What strikes me about all of this is not once do I remember anyone pairing a Riley Cooper jersey with a KKK hood after his infamous tirade at a Kenny Chesney concert last year. I don’t remember anyone wearing a Ben Roethlisberger jersey while carrying around an apparently inebriated blow-up doll. A cursory Google Image search of either of these things will turn up few results, if any. I guess making light of a talented WR’s racist rants, the sexual assault allegations against an elite quarterback, or depicting that quarterback’s alleged victim in such a demeaning way would have been in poor taste. And it certainly would have been in poor taste.
I just wish Janay Rice and the thousands of Africans who perished without so much as a raised eyebrow from the West had received the same consideration.
I’m curious as to what it is about the pain of people of color that invites the more demented among us to use it as fodder for a good time. What is so amusing about a woman getting knocked out in an elevator that it would move you to caricature her? Why is the line not drawn with her the way it is unwittingly drawn with others? And, for the love of all that is holy and decent, why add blackface on top of it all? By itself it’s insulting to an entire group of people, but in this context it ostensibly connects that group to the kind of behavior you’re lampooning. How can one be so far removed from the widespread sufferings of people an ocean away that one decides to make their suffering a “theme” of one’s holiday decorations?
In 2014, All Hallow’s Eve in America still has a race problem. The victimization of a woman is “funny,” as is the fact that she and her aggressor are black. A very real public threat that has impacted nearly exclusively black Africans and has recently given rise to some of the most vile and xenophobic “caution” we’ve ever seen is also “funny.” Somewhere this week, someone who’s not Asian will put on a coolie hat and a fake Fu Manchu mustache and call it a “costume.” Someone else will wear a Native American headdress and do the same. And I’ll cringe and weep because clearly they don’t have friends — at least not diverse or even good ones.