Hey, Ireland! Let’s talk about racism. Here. NOW.


TW for hella racism.

I’ve got a bone to pick with you, Ireland. You and me, we need to have a chat. And we need to do it now.

Listen, Ireland, I get that you think that we get a get-out-of-racism-free card. It’s true that anti-Irish racism has been going on for hundreds and hundreds of years and is still a thing in some places, and that a century and a bit ago we were starving in Famines while the other white people were off buying and selling human beings and we couldn’t even afford a decent potato. Yep. We had it pretty bad, back then.

That doesn’t mean we that our consciences were as lily-white as our delicate, sunburn-prone skins, though. For centuries, we’ve had a truly exceptional ability to hate people of a slightly different brand of Christianity to ourselves. The way that settled Irish people look on and act towards the Travelling community is horrible. And did you know we’ve historically done quite the line in anti-semitism as well? Shure didn’t we have our own pogrom down in Limerick in 1904.

So let’s not pretend, Ireland, that we either couldn’t be racist here or that racism is such a newfangled phenomenon ’round these parts that we simply don’t know how to recognise it when we see it. We’re not as innocent as we’d like to think.

So, since we have this long, varied history and culture of racism to draw on, precisely where did people get the idea that dressing up in blackface was okay?

I get it. It’s Halloween. Although you have a multitude of thousands of things to dress up as, you figure that there’s nothing quite like a white guy dragging it up and painting his face to be Whitney Houston for the night. You figure that being a fan makes up for a century or two of racist connotations and imagery. And, eh, your friends seem to agree:

Just in case you were unsure, a few guidelines for confused white people:

  • When POC tell you that a thing is racist, you take them at their word.
  • When POC tell you that a thing is racist, you do not tell them that they’re being oversensitive. It’s far, far more likely that you just don’t know what you’re talking about. Since they live with racism every day, they know more about it than you do.
  • If POC tell you a thing you did was racist, and if they are not sweet and polite about it, you don’t get to stomp off in a huff over your hurt fee-fees. You did a racist thing. People are well within their rights to be mad at you.
  • Intent is not magic. Not intending to be racist does not make a thing not racist. If I don’t mean to stand on your toe, but my foot is still on your toe, your toe is still going to hurt like hell. I don’t get to talk about how I didn’t mean to step on you without moving my foot.
  • Being gay/a woman/trans/disabled/working class and/or a member of any other marginalised group does not grant you a Get Out Of Racism Free card. This is the real world, not Monopoly. Oppression of one kind doesn’t magically make you incapable of being an asshat towards others.
  • By the way, doing a racist thing doesn’t magically turn you into a Nazi fascist KKK’er. It means you are a human person who did a thing you shouldn’t have done. If you’re not an ass about it, it doesn’t have to be the world’s biggest deal.
  • If you find out that a thing you did was racist, then the appropriate response is to apologise and stop doing that thing. Once you’ve stopped doing the thing, if you’re confused about why that thing was racist you can use this marvellous tool to find out why. You don’t get to go bothering the person who you’ve just been racist at about that racist thing you did. That’s just rude.

Wasn’t that easy?

Edit:

After reading the comments, it’s become clear to me that a lot of people really don’t get why this is such a big deal. Over the next few days, I’ll be writing a couple of follow-up posts. The first is Why It Really Is That Bad: A brief history of blackface. The second will respond directly to some of the other concerns people have raised- I should get that up by tomorrow or Wednesday at the latest.

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66 thoughts on “Hey, Ireland! Let’s talk about racism. Here. NOW.

  1. No. I can’t agree. The offended person is not always right. Being a minority does not make them right. If a “person of colour” thinks a particular act was racist, he or she should not be presumed to be speaking for all people of colour. (That presumption would be racist.)
    As for not “bothering” the person who’s offended, what’s that about? If someone’s offended and I don’t know why, of course I’m going to ask them. If they get huffy and won’t tell me what I did wrong, then no, I won’t just go to Google and see if I can figure it all out for myself.
    I also think there’s a world of difference between dressing up as a person who happens to be black and dressing up as a generic black person. Simply painting one’s skin brown and putting a dress on is a piss-poor attempt at a Whitney Houston costume, but I don’t think the paint makes it racist any more than the dress makes it sexist.
    I’m not saying we shouldn’t take other people’s feelings into account, just that other people’s feelings are not the final word on anything.

    • > If a “person of colour” thinks a particular act was racist, he or she should not be presumed to be speaking for all people of colour.

      No, but they do speak for themselves, and chances are they are more attuned to racism than you, a white person, would be.

      > As for not “bothering” the person who’s offended, what’s that about? If someone’s offended and I don’t know why, of course I’m going to ask them.

      Sure, but if after they say ‘I’m offended because the thing you did was a racist thing’, if you can’t figure out why then they don’t owe you an education into their marginalisation. That shit is on you.

      > I also think there’s a world of difference between dressing up as a person who happens to be black and dressing up as a generic black person. Simply painting one’s skin brown and putting a dress on is a piss-poor attempt at a Whitney Houston costume, but I don’t think the paint makes it racist

      You’re wrong. Educate yourself.

      • “No, but they do speak for themselves, and chances are they are more attuned to racism than you, a white person, would be.”

        Possibly, but that doesn’t necessarily make them experts, or impartial.

        “Sure, but if after they say ‘I’m offended because the thing you did was a racist thing’, if you can’t figure out why then they don’t owe you an education into their marginalisation. That shit is on you.”

        Nobody in this situation owes anybody anything. If I can’t figure out why you’re offended and you won’t tell me, I’m likely to just shrug it off. How much of my time and effort do you expect me to expend trying to figure out why some random person is offended about something?

        “You’re wrong. Educate yourself.”

        A little reflection should make you realise there’s no point simply telling me to educate myself. I already have Google, and I already have an opinion on this matter. I’m even aware that other opinions exist. If you want to shut down the conversation by telling me to go off and not come back until I agree with you, you’re free to do so but it’s not a very intelligent or effective way of arguing.

        • > I already have Google, and I already have an opinion on this matter.

          Then you are really bad at google or really bad at understanding racism.

          > If you want to shut down the conversation by telling me to go off and not come back until I agree with you, you’re free to do so

          Awesome. Go away. I have no intention of holding your hand through your white privilege.

          • “Awesome. Go away. I have no intention of holding your hand through your white privilege.”

            I expected as much. I’ve had similar responses on similar issues. I don’t get it though. You’re passionate about a particular issue, and you wish other people felt the same way about it. But when they try to get information from you about it, you blow them off.
            I hope you can at least muster enough perspicacity to realise that “Google it!” can be used dismissively by people holding any opinion about any matter.

            • > I’ve had similar responses on similar issues

              I wonder why!

              > I don’t get it though

              Shocking. Truly.

            • Have you ever read this? If not, you should.

              • This blog is fantastic, Aoife. I would have linked him derailing for dummies myself, but I’d say your way is much more effective =P

              • That’s not vastly less condescending than just telling me to go to Google. It’s also not very useful, as we’re not discussing a particularly feminist issue. And I don’t think I’m a beginner asking questions that you knowledgeable sorts are tired of answering. I’m someone who disagrees with you on this issue.

                • If you actually bothered to read it, however, you’d see that although it is focused on feminism and not race, it’s relevant. You’re asking why we don’t want to go through Racism 101 with you. That’s the answer.
                  And, honestly? If you disagree on this one then you need Racism 101.

                • “Oh man this bit of Derailing for Dummies is like it was written specifically with you in mind!”

                  It wasn’t though, was it? It was written with you in mind. It allows you to ignore and trivialise arguments you don’t like because they come from a particular sort of person. Instead of engaging with me as an equal, you can caricature me as a “Privileged Person®” and dismiss everything I say because I’m not like you.
                  I don’t expect you to spend hours of your time educating me, but if, instead of dismissing and belittling me, you had spent the time outlining – or even linking to – a cogent argument for your case, we could have had a much more productive conversation.

                • Okay. Derek, whatever about anyone else, I’m not going to caricature you. You know full well I’m well able to carry on a perfectly amicable conversation with you even when we disagree on things. So let’s do that, k? I wasn’t linking to the Fem 101 to be patronising- it just says what I was getting at a lot better than I can.

                  Also, I do see this particular thread descending into a slagging match, on both sides. While I don’t want to be the tone police, can we keep the personal attacks down and stick to the issues?

                • “Okay. Derek, whatever about anyone else, I’m not going to caricature you. You know full well I’m well able to carry on a perfectly amicable conversation with you even when we disagree on things. So let’s do that, k?”

                  Agreed.

                • Derek, there are already articles linked in the discussion…. plus, you indicated that you had already done reading and had an opinion… and that that opinion was that the costume in question is not racist, which I’m both baffled needs explaining and not all that bothered explaining with the aim of ‘convincing’ somebody (since in my experience, when something is clearly racist and somebody claims to have done actual research around the issue but still disagrees, it’s proved to be pretty futile). Aoife, awesome that she is, has already linked her piece on it though, and it’s great.

  2. Read a great quote today actually:

    “White people don’t get to decide if something is racist. On a much smaller scale, allow me to represent this by punching you in the face. Then I get to decide, myself, whether it hurts or not.” -Anesti Vega

    But yeah, white people like to tell POC what’s racist and what’s not, which is also racism, actually — when you think they’re not clever enough to be clear on what actually is oppression and what isn’t.

    • ““White people don’t get to decide if something is racist. On a much smaller scale, allow me to represent this by punching you in the face. Then I get to decide, myself, whether it hurts or not.” -Anesti Vega”

      That’s a terrible quote. It fails to distinguish between a real event and a feeling. If I punch you in the face, I have violated your rights, regardless of whether I think it hurts or not. If I put on make-up and you don’t like it, your rights have not been affected in any way. I may choose to take your feelings into consideration, or I may not.

      • @Derek, except the comparison being made is not about rights, but about hurt.

        • “@Derek, except the comparison being made is not about rights, but about hurt”

          And that’s why it falls down so quickly. You’re allowed to be “hurt” but it’s not necessarily my problem. If I punch you in the face, it’s my problem. If I abuse you because of your race, it’s my problem. But if I’m just carrying on about my business, and you come up to tell me you’re hurt, or offended, then so what? I may consider your feelings, but they’re really your problem.

          • > You’re allowed to be “hurt” but it’s not necessarily my problem.

            As somebody who cares about whether I hurt other people, I do consider it my problem if that happens.

            > I may consider your feelings, but they’re really your problem.

            Ha. No need for a profile picture to tell you’re a white man (OMG MISANDRY + RACISM)

            • “As somebody who cares about whether I hurt other people, I do consider it my problem if that happens.”

              Do you see that there’s a difference between you hurting someone and someone being hurt by something you do?

              “Ha. No need for a profile picture to tell you’re a white man (OMG MISANDRY + RACISM)”

              It’s idiotic, lazy, and necessarily sexist and racist to tell me that my opinion is a result of and even invalidated by my sex and my race. And I’ll judge you for it. But I think you should be free to do it.

            • “Ha. No need for a profile picture to tell you’re a white man (OMG MISANDRY + RACISM)”
              I believe that that may actually be racist. Let me check the definition.

          • But what is “carrying on about your business”? If part of carrying on about your business involved using racial slurs and someone was offended (who was nearby, for instance), you’re still wrong. And even if you didn’t know that N***** was a racist slur (because apparently you don’t know that blackface is), you’re still wrong, just wrong and ignorant.

            • OK, that makes some sense. But if I’m using racial slurs, I’m being racist. (Unless I’m quoting someone, or talking about the racial slurs, rather than strictly using them) And I accept that if I’m doing “blackface”, i.e. making myself up as a stereotype or caricature of a black person, then I’m probably being racist, and definitely being racially insensitive. But dressing up as Whitney Houston is a different thing. Is it racist for a white man to dress as Whitney Houston? If so, I have a whole lot of follow-up questions. If, however, you think it’s not inherently racist, then why does it become racist if the man actually makes some attempt to look like Whitney?

              • The thing about racism is that, well, very few things are ‘inherently’ racist. Because racism, like all of the rest of how us humans communicate with each other, is all about symbolism. Symbols are created and have meanings. Racial slurs are offensive not because of anything inherent in their syllables, but because of how their meaning interacts with culture and history. The same is true of blackface. There’s nothing inherently terrible about putting coloured pigments on your face. But symbols have meanings. And you don’t get to dismiss those.

          • Sorry, but this is bullshit. If I was under the impression that there was nothing in the world wrong with using the N word, I could feel exactly the same way about someone coming up to me and calling me out on it. I wasn’t intending to offend or hurt anyone! I wasn’t punching anyone in the face! I was just using syllables and making noises come out of my mouth!

            Symbols. Have. Meaning. Whether you personally know about that meaning or not.

      • Dude dressing up in blackface is a real event. Blackface is also a seriously oppressive tradition that has been around for a very long time, used by white people to mock black people.
        That’s not a feeling. That person using racist symbols in order to oppress people is a fact, not a feeling, but you’re very convinced you’re right and you’re not going to change your mind.
        Since all the white Irish people don’t give a shit about people being offended, next year for Hallowe’en, I’m going to get wasted, violent, stupid and make racist comments and tell everyone I’m dressed up as Irish.

        • “Since all the white Irish people don’t give a shit about people being offended, next year for Hallowe’en, I’m going to get wasted, violent, stupid and make racist comments and tell everyone I’m dressed up as Irish.”

          No need to wait for Hallowe’en. That’s what St. Patrick’s Day is for. 😉

          But, seriously, the actual equivalent in this case would be you dressing up as Bono.

          • OH MY GOD SHUT UP SHUT UP YOU FUCKING DICK DO YOU EVEN HEAR YOURSELF

          • Sorry, no. Last I heard, nobody had oppressed Bono for centuries. Nobody’s ever been beaten, humiliated, enslaved or killed for being Bono. Nobody ever gets denied a job for being Bono. People don’t get off scot-free for murdering Bonos, and Bono never gets shut up in jail for daring to defend himself. And so on, and so on, and so on.

            • All equally true of Whitney Houston. Again, I think there’s a big difference between dressing up as a particular black person and caricaturing a whole race.
              Irish people have been beaten, humiliated, enslaved, killed, falsely imprisoned etc. simply for being Irish. Also, there is a long and ugly “comedic” history of dressing up in stereotypical Irish clothes and putting on a broad Irish accent, in order to further oppress and humiliate Irish people. But there’s a difference between that and dressing up as Bono, even if a bad Irish accent is attempted.

  3. > I also think there’s a world of difference between dressing up as a person who happens to be black and dressing up as a generic black person. Simply painting one’s skin brown and putting a dress on is a piss-poor attempt at a Whitney Houston costume, but I don’t think the paint makes it racist

    “You’re wrong. Educate yourself.”

    Could you elaborate a bit? Why is dressing up as someone of a difference race automatically racist, when dressing as someone of the opposite gender isn’t automatically sexist?

    • There are links with information, like, right in this article. Including one to google, which is definitely your friend in this situation. It has a lot to do with a) the historical context of black face and its uses and b) ‘othering’ of POC as if their race or culture is a costume, and white as the ‘default’. I’m honestly baffled that ‘why black face is racist’ is something that needs explaining to anybody in 2012.

    • I’m going to have a go at explaining this, but it’ll take another whole post. In the meantime, check out the links in the post.

    • ‘Kay. Part one of my answer to this question is here. Hope this helps!

  4. While we’re on the subject, can we talk about one other thing? Cork GAA fans waving the Confederate flag. That is a flag not just dripping, but absolutely soaked in racist connotations. I understand they think it’s about being “rebels”, but it’s not. There’s a horrible, hateful history behind it. The total lack of sensitivity toward that history boggles my mind.

    • @Wendy, as somebody who pays as little attention to sports as possible, that is really shocking to me and something I had no idea about until now!

  5. Have to agree with RunWithScissors and DerekWalsh. The original posting over simplifies the issue dramatically. A good place to start would be by defining racism.

    According to dictionary.com
    rac·ism   [rey-siz-uhm]
    noun
    1. a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human races determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to rule others.
    2. a policy, system of government, etc., based upon or fostering such a doctrine; discrimination.
    3. hatred or intolerance of another race or other races.

    By this definition, no costume in itself is inherently racist. If there is an intention to use it to make a statement, then that intention is racist.

    It doesn’t mean that the costume can’t be offensive and insensitive, but this is subjective.

    • And short dictionary definitions of complex, controversial and baggage-laden topics aren’t dramatic oversimplifications?

      • Of course which is why the Original Poster should have laid out what they were against more clearly, rather than just calling it ‘racism’.

  6. Steve W, you should probably look up the dictionary definition of ‘connotation’ while you have yer dictionary out and give this whole issue a second thought.

  7. If you are building your argument around the connotations of racism, but not racism itself, you should probably find better words to use. Can I suggest you recast your argument as one of racial sensitivity rather than racism in order to give to avoid dodging the critical element of subjectivity.

    • Using words like “racially insensitive” is just a polite way of saying that someone inadvertently did a racist thing. I’m not going to call a spade anything other than a spade here.
      Also, “the critical element of subjectivity”? Give me a break. What about the subjectivity of POC? Or is “racial insensitivity” the kind of thing where, if a POC complains of racism, they’re accused of being oversensitive? I call bullshit on this one.

      • ” I’m not going to call a spade anything other than a spade here.”

        Maybe not the best choice of words in the circumstances!

        • If you put as much effort into educating yourself as you did into making tacky jokes and dismissing the experiences of marginalised groups you’d be set! Ah, wishful thinking.

  8. I still think this is a bit over the top. Yes, his costume taste is appalling and it looks terrible, but I doubt he set out with the intention of offending people doing this, so I personally don’t see the harm. I’ve seen worse costumes this year as people dressed as Jimmy Saville or zombified Amy Winehouses, costumes that have every reason to strike a cord with people and cause upset. Was there a shit storm over those costumes? No. There should be, yet there’s not, because it’s easier to focus on a drunk gay man in a nightclub with badly applied tan and a dress from Dunnes Stores than it is to focus on costumes that were purposely more provocative.

    I honestly don’t think the guy wearing this set out to upset people with what he was wearing, and I don’t think it reflects his views on racism by wearing it either. It’s a horrible thing to accuse somebody of and that word shouldn’t be thrown around lightly. As a student who’s studied Theatrical Make Up, I can tell you a mile off that’s not Black Face make up. Look up Black Face on Google and you’ll see for yourself, the make up look involved a face completely blackened with an actual BLACK colour as opposed to Tan, and it deliberately highlighted and accentuated the mouth for (at the time comedic) effect. Fact of the matter is you see none of that with his costume. If you’re going to mention Black Face in an article at least have the courtesy to look up what the image actually entailed before comparing it to this man’s taste in make up, because not only are you factually incorrect but you’re tarnishing the man’s name and reputation by wrongly associating him with a very controversial and oppressive image.

    I can see why his friends are defending him, you’re publicly calling him a racist and associating him with oppressive cultural views whilst also including a tagged photograph of his friend on Facebook (with a full name included too, how kind of you to be that considerate) for the whole world to see. How about you get off your high horse there for a second and stop and think of the implications an article like this might have on both of those two lad’s lives branding them as racists on the internet. Is it fair nowadays to completely victimise two people in an attempt to stand up for the persecuted? Because last I checked, two wrongs don’t make a right. And for the record, ONE person’s costume on Halloween does not reflect Irish Mentality, it’s incredibly audacious gesture on your part to speak to “Ireland” due to the tastes of one singular person. You’re picking your argument over nothing in my opinion, if anything the only thing I find offensive is that he thinks this in any way reflects how Whitney Houston looked.

  9. The issue isn’t that dressing up as Whitney Houston is inherently racist, the issue is that doing blackface is inherently racist, because historically it’s something that has been used to dehumanise and oppress POC. Now I’m sure the person dressing up as Whitney Houston was not going out with the intention of dehumanising POC, and would claim that since the context is different that it’s not racist, however, in the same way as it still wouldn’t be okay for white people to use the ‘N’ word even if they invented a new context that wasn’t meant to be dehumanising, this costume is still not in anyway okay.

  10. But you’re missing the point. It’s not a blackface costume, nor is it remotely similar in appearance to a blackface look, so the grounds of accusing him or the costume itself as distasteful or racist is unjust. There’s no white highlight around the mouth with his make up, or a deep, black colour for the face. He’s not trying to do Blackface make up here at all. He’s using a dark bronzer and a dark self tanning product to darken his skin for a desired look, with some lipstick and eyeliner…no different to any young woman in Ireland getting ready for a Saturday night out. In what way is that racist? What’s the difference between a girl throwing on some strong bronzer before going out and him layering himself in a dark tan? Is it because he’s a MAN darkening his skin with a bronzing product it’s considered racially insulting??

    It seems you’ve immediately jumped to the assumption he was doing a black face without actually educating yourself to what a black face actually looks like. How is tanning his face a dark brown and slapping on a wig anything similar to this? http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/5/58/Minstrel_PosterBillyVanWare_edit.jpg/280px-Minstrel_PosterBillyVanWare_edit.jpg or even this? http://www.orijinculture.com/community/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/blackface.jpg

    Fact of the matter is, they look nothing alike and the man in question had no intention in causing any offence with his costume. This is beyond ludicrous trying to compare him to a blackface and it’s the a blatant example of nitpicking.

    • the reason this is blackface is because he’s trying to look black. off the top of my head, two examples of blackface in film where the person wasn’t wearing minstrel makeup – Birth of a Nation, Torchsong.

  11. “he reason this is blackface is because he’s trying to look black”

    No, he’s trying to look like Whitney Houston, who just so happens to be black. Failing at it, bear in mind, but all he’s doing is tanning his skin and making a minor attempt at drag make up to do so. There’s nothing political or snide about it, his make up is noticeably different to the controversial blackface make up if you actually bother to take the time to compare them. He’s doing female drag where the woman he’s impersonating is black, he’s admitted himself he’s a fan of Whitney Houston and it wasn’t an attack on her or the black community. You’re reading way too much into things and making accusations about the man’s character that are non-retractable. I don’t know what’s worse, tarring him a racist publically or the fact that due to your own ignorance and alleged sensitivity you refuse to see past the basic facts that are being presented to you. Stop focusing on the fact it’s a white man impersonating a black woman, it’s a costume, you’re more making more of a big deal about skin colour than the man wearing it.

    • I did mention that blackface that isn’t minstrel makeup exists, but you seem to have ignored that point. Birth of a Nation is one of the most racist films ever made and the blackface in that is not minstrel makeup. The racist history of white people painting themselves brown to impersonate black people is not solely confined to minstrel shows. Pointing out that someone did a racist thing is not ‘tarring’ them. I have said and done racist things in the past in ignorance and i now know that these things were racist and I would never repeat them. Calling out racism is not some sort of witch hunt, it’s done in order to educate and better society for all.

      • Pointing out that someone did a racist thing is not ‘tarring’ them. I have said and done racist things in the past in ignorance and i now know that these things were racist and I would never repeat them. Calling out racism is not some sort of witch hunt, it’s done in order to educate and better society for all.

        This. So much this. Also, me too! And it’s probably going to happen again. We’re all only human, we all mess up sometimes, and making mistakes or not knowing things isn’t the end of the world.

  12. I just want to put it out there that a lot of young Irish people are completely unaware of what “blackface” is and have no knowledge of its historical connotations. I recently questioned a friend of mine who came to my Halloween party dressed as a person of colour and out of all people present I turned out to be the only one actually aware that this can be seen as racist. I am by no means trying to suggest ignorance as an excuse, and I was shocked that I was the only one to be aware of this, but it seems a bit over the top to publicly humiliate this man who may genuinely have been unaware of the implications of his actions. Also, it was interesting to note that at the party, almost everyone agreed that the girl’s costume was racist as she dressed herself as, what she saw as “a generic black person” (as if such thing exists :\) yet most saw nothing wrong with somebody painting themselves brown and going as Barrack Obama, for example, as this was necessary for the costume to translate (just an interesting observation).

    I think rather than condemning these actions as racist without room for discussion, it’s worth examining the cultural context of the situation. I believe that age also has a lot to do with it. My parents, for example, were shocked to hear that people would dress as a person of colour for Halloween as they have knowledge of the oppression associated with this. Many of my generation are not familiar with this and, while I recognise that this is a luxury granted to young white Irish people, it is perhaps worth educating rather than publicly humiliating and condemning people for what they saw as a totally innocent costume choice.

  13. Pingback: Blackface Follow-up 1. Why it really is That Bad: a history of blackface. | Consider the Tea Cosy

  14. Let me try again. I favour a robust, adversarial style of argument, especially on the Internet, but I’m not generally an asshole just for the sake of it. And I’m smart enough to know when that approach isn’t working (eventually, anyway). So here’s what I think, or at least what I currently think I think.
    If a fellow white man came to me and said: “Dude [that’s how we address each other], I’m thinking of dressing up as Whitney Houston for Hallowe’en”, my response would probably be: “What? You mean, zombie Whitney Houston?”. But once we’d established that, no, he wanted to disguise himself as the still living Whitney Houston, I’d probably ask how he was going to accomplish that. If he told me he was going to paint himself brown and put on a dress, I like to think I’d have asked him to think again. But not because it’s racist. At least, not exactly.
    It’s because it’s close enough to something that IS racist that it’s bound to trigger someone’s racism detector. And that’s not worth doing for a mediocre costume idea. With an issue of such extreme sensitivity, it’s best to err on the side of caution.
    I think intent is important, both in ethics and in law, but a foreseeable consequence being unintended does not absolve us of responsibility. It is unwise not to consider the consequences of our actions, and where those actions could offend people we do not intend or wish to offend, it is prudent to rethink them.
    It’s occurring to me that there is perhaps an element of racism in that he seems to think it’s enough to put on a dress and black up, as if there’s nothing to Whitney Houston other than being a black woman. He certainly wouldn’t just put on a dress, not black up and think he made a passable Celine Dion (the white equivalent of Whitney Houston). But that’s a subtly different form of racism (if indeed it is racism, and not just a bad costume). It’s not because it’s “blackface” but because it considers “being black” an attribute in a way that “being white” isn’t.
    So, that’s where I am. I think it’s probably not racist – and if it is it’s racist for different reasons. But it was still a bad idea (and a bad costume).

    • I don’t understand why it’s so important to you to distinguish “actually racist” from “bound to trigger someone’s racism detector” to “not exactly racist” and “racist for different reasons”. All these “subtly different forms of racism” must be fun for you to parse and analyse since you’re still here, but what the hell are you actually contributing to society by setting up a sliding of “well this is a little bit racist, and this is sort of racist, and I guess this is racist but only if there is this intent behind it”!?

      A racist action is a racist action. White people, with their long and rich and shameful history of dressing up as black people in order to mock and degrade them, should not dress up as black people in any way shape or form. Just like it is not okay for a white person to say the N-word in any content except for possibly an academic discussion about the N-word, it is not okay for a white person to black their skin up in imitation of a black person, whether they be living, deceased or “generic” (seriously wtf?!) Because it is racist. All this slicing and dicing about what is actually racist (as defined by white people obviously, because PoC aren’t impartial enough and have all these pesky emotions associated with racism! I wonder why!) achieves absolutely nothing except giving people who are racist out of ignorance an excuse to continue behaving like racists and it builds a wonderful shield for intentional racists to hide behind when they are called out on their racist bullshit. It reminds of the American Conservative Party and their woeful ongoing discussion about what actually constitutes rape and their overarching to concern to make sure it’s defined in the narrowest terms possible, so “actual rape” becomes something that only happens to slutty women who are violently attacked in alleys.

      Seriously. Aoife has it so so right. If a PoC tells you something is racist, you shut the fuck up, you assume that their LIVED EXPERIENCE OF RACISM is probably more valid than your super-impartial (not in anyway influenced by the fact that you’re white!) intellectual musings on the subject, and then you go and EDUCATE YOURSELF.
      The PoC who actually suffer pain and distress caused by harmful racist shit like this don’t actually giving a flying fuck whether it’s inadvertently racist or only kind of racist or racist for the right reasons or whatever flavour of racism you are trying to say it is. It doesn’t make it stop hurting people and it doesn’t make it ok.

      And white privilege is being able to “impartial” to shit like this, because it has absolutely zero impact on our identity or our experience of society.

      Aoife, I apologise for the long comment, I just found your blog and this is an awesome post!

  15. Pingback: “Racist, Racist” « ELLIOT LAKE News & Views

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  18. A lot of offense is caused in ignorance rather than out of maliciousness. I’m not excusing the fact that it has happened but I would think that someone taking the time to explain just why they are upset/enraged by your actions is a better step than just screaming “you’re a racist go read why”. I think that is far more likely to get someone to question their actions and respectfully refrain from doing something, that up until now they assumed was fine.

    Why I came to this post again was a recent discussion I had with friends about “Wild West” themed parties and people dressing as “Indians”. While this is something I think we see a lot in Ireland and most people here generally accept, I think most thinking people in the US or Canada would be appalled. Firstly the difference is the historical displacement and discrimination against Native Americans in those countries. Also the fact that people tend to think in terms of outdated western movies here rather than individuals of a racial/cultural background that they’ve actually met. It doesn’t really however excuse anyone over the age of 6 not knowing the difference between “Indian” and “Native American” in terms of ethnic identity but that’s a whole other point!

    Yet people who are “really really not racist” do this all the time (I’m not talking changing their skin colour but appropriating someones culture as a fancy-dress costume). I think it’s something we tend not to talk about and discussing appropriate boundaries and the reason for them is far more helpful than just saying “you are racist go figure it out” – especially in a context when the person is actually willing to listen, and is unintentional in their racism as opposed to willfully ignorant.

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