How not to do Halloween

Image: William Warby

Let’s talk about Halloween for a second! Even though by now everybody’s probably firmly in Christmas mode, busy remembering how Jesus was born to save our souls but then we exiled him to the Moon but then this little girl sent him a telescope. Back to Halloween. Now, there’s a lot of Halloween costumes you can wear with the intention of stirring up some controversy.

For instance, if you’re like Mary Hotlz, a Tesco worker from Airdrie in North Lancashire, you can borrow an idea from the film Big Momma’s House and show up to work dressed as the eponymous character. Since she was white, she decided to grab the makeup jar and start blacking up, in an act even more offensive than reminding us that Big Momma’s House exists. And then a customer of Afro-Caribbean descent complained on Facebook, Hotlz was forced to go home and change, and the internet and media collectively asked whether blackface was actually racist.

It’s a debate that crops up every Halloween, as surely as pumpkins, slutty cats and Heath Ledger facepaint. At this very university in 2013, four students made national news by going as the bobsled team from Cool Runnings, complete with fake dreadlocks and painted faces. Only recently, Ryan Ruckledge (someone who was apparently on the X-Factor, I’m not sure either) offended his Twitter followers by blacking up to dress as a Magaluf salesman. Huffington Post has a whole tag you can search for “Blackface Halloween”. And so it goes on.

This time around, a lot of the commenters I saw on various news websites seemed to be sticking up for Hotlz. She was a victim, beaten down by PC Brigade and his colleagues in the Fun Police, who want to surgically remove our collective sense of humour and use the pooling blood to write their trigger warnings. And why wouldn’t it be offensive if, say, a black man wanted to be Luke Skywalker? And what about that one movie White Chicks where the Wayans Brothers dressed up like white women? ‘Eh?! Where were your protests THEN, you protester, you?!

Well, firstly, that implies that critics and viewers weren’t accusing White Chicks of lazy racism and stereotypes back when it came out (spoilers: they were, and it won Razzies and got 15% on RottenTomatoes). Furthermore, as it turns out, non-white ethnicities can draw a sizeable backlash for dressing up in blackface too: consider Native American Terry Rambler from Arizona, who drew fire almost immediately for his Bob Marley costume.

But as for why blackface in particular constantly draws controversy, the answer stems from the sheer amount of historical context that the act happens to be steeped in, and which it inevitably dredges up whenever it’s repeated.

Beginning with the minstrel shows of 1830s America and continuing on through the early days of Hollywood and beyond, blackface existed for the express purpose of reducing black people to clownish stereotypes, and to establish a level of cultural contempt that remained for generations. And to anyone who might suggest that this was a purely American phenomenon, by the 1900s there were minstrel shows in Britain too. In fact, the BBC started its own Black and White Minstrel Show in the 1960s.

Besides, we can probably assume the hypothetical black Luke Skywalker wouldn’t be painting his face bright-pink. Instead, he’d be relying on his outfit, props and perhaps a wig to get the point of his costume across – and if all else failed, he could probably just get himself a cardboard mask without resorting the cultural uh-oh of painting his face.

So to finish up this little diatribe: do I think Mary Holtz was racist? Not on purpose – at least, not on the level of those people who dressed as Bloodied Trayvon Martin or Somali pirates. But if you’re going to draw on a well-established expression of bigotry and hatred so you can make a Halloween prop out of it, you should probably be prepared for people to call you out, or to assume that you’re deliberately trying to be a jerk by poking a very racially-charged wound.

And that’s not what Moon Jesus would have wanted. Think on that.



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