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That’s Racist! (but not how you might think)

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.


by alex felipe (originally published at


Another Halloween is past and you know what that means my POC friends.  Yup, we just did another round of muttering “that’s racist” over and over again to ourselves.

… and while I fear I might be (ok, am) a minority on this one (see what I did there?):  I don’t entirely get it.

Now ruling out the extremely obviously racist costumes like the buck toothed Asian (a la Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s), Jim Crow era Black caricatures, or Islamic “terrorists,” which clearly are unacceptable, I don’t particularly agree with the uproar and activism over “ethnic” costumes.

When I say I don’t ‘get it.’  I mean that I don’t accept the rationale behind why the outcry is focused on the costumes themselves.  I don’t understand why the call is basically for White people NOT to do it.  Full Stop.

I mean why is it that we see costumes based on traditional dress racist?  The usual refrain is:  “we are a culture, not a costume.”  But if this is the case, would it not also be proper for Whites to decry costumes based on horned Vikings (which are historically inaccurate btw) or medieval knights?

Now the answer to my question is obvious: It’s not the same because of the disparity in power relations, and the vicious history of colonization that has imbued on to these images a different connotation.

I get that.

What I don’t get, is why this translates simply into:  Don’t wear that Whitey!

When we people of colour see these costumes we are reminded of our subordinate place in society.  We are reminded that our countries of origin were ravaged by colonialism, and are still exploited through modern imperialism.

But again, if that is the case, and I think most POCs are on board with that line of thought, why do we stop at simply calling out the costume?

Now of course I’m not saying that we can’t both try to convince our White sisters and brothers that this offends us, and at the same time, fight the root causes.  We can.  But we should also prioritize.

If the costume is a symbol that offends because it reminds us that we still live in an unequal world why do we stop at the symbol and not continue on to what it symbolizes?

Instead of just activism to end ‘racist’ Halloween costumes, why not put first activism to end the conditions that make our cultural symbols racist to our own eyes?

If we truly care, shouldn’t our first target should be imperialism?

Because in a world without imperialism the reasons for this offense evaporates.  Our cultural dress are again ours—and no matter who wears them they remain ours.  By focusing on costume activism we relinquish this to others, we alienate ourselves from what is our cultural commons.  And that’s depressing twice over.

And that.  Is racist.

*     *     * 

So Why Don’t We? 

The analysis about the costume racism is the easy part.  The hard part comes in the question of why we focus on the symbolized over the symbol?

I’m sad to say, I think it’s because we middle-class Western people of colour more or less like it this way.

Fighting the big fight against the status quo, against the socio-political-economic system we live in, against imperialism, threatens our own way of life.

Try telling masses in the Philippines about these costumes being racist.  Really.  Try it.  The majority of them will just stare blankly at you.  They won’t get it.

*approx $1.00

For them their concerns are material: food, housing, employment, education, healthcare, etc.  And for those who have analyzed the situation they will tell you that it’s due to both foreign exploitation of their country, and the local elites that assist them.

For them the ethnic costumes are either stupid in their unrealism, or make the wearer look like an idiot, or even cute—because they still own those costumes, they still own their culture.

This stress on the individual wearing a costume is made because the reasoning is part of the core ideology of our time: the idea that everything comes down to individual choice.  But we don’t choose our culture.  We live that culture.  When one chooses, it no longer lives.

A costume may be based on a culture, but it is not the culture.

It’s only us in the West who see a White man in a sombrero and feel the rage.

But to do anything about it means risking a loss of our own cherished position in the middle.  We are second class citizens, but we aren’t at the bottom and we hold out hope that we can be one of the few allowed to rise up and join the elites up top.

So we rage at the symbol.  It’s another key part of the ideology of the day isn’t it?  As I wrote in a previous article:

Is this type of public critique not akin to a friend or psychologist telling someone to just ‘let out your feelings?’  This act of screaming and crying helps an individual feel better.  And yet this only helps with emotional acceptance, and not with the material conditions that led to the issue in the first place.  Is not the next step after emotion release, action against the direct cause of the problem? Yet with most political critique is not action often missing?  Or if present, is it not more often directed at [the symbol] rather than the [symbolized?]  It’s as if one had an abusive relationship and instead of leaving the partner, one chastised the partners fists…

And that’s how ideology works today.  Despite our cynicism, despite our Occupy style ‘awakening,’ the system continues to function, and our critique—rather than challenging the way things are—becomes an important component of maintaining it.

By focusing on telling any ol’ White person in ethnic dress that they are racist what are we doing?  We don’t know the person, their intent, whether they themselves understand why we are offended.  And in doing so we distance ourselves from them, and them from us.

ImageStep this up to a societal level and what we are doing is further strengthening the divide alongst racial lines.  We create an enmity amongst others that may not actually be racist in intent.  And we stop the possibility for solidarity emerging.

The problems we collectively face as a society are too big for us to fight alone.  The various forms of inequality that exist cut across racial, gender, and class lines (to name just three) and will require largescale political organization to overturn.

Too often today our actions relegate us to individual action, or actions against an individuals actions.

That’s the genius of ideology today.  We can think we are being progressive, that we are addressing core societal issues.  But in reality we reinforce differences, we help make a united front against the forces that oppress the majority of us (White people included) more difficult, and in the end the winner is the status quo.

It’s amazing ideological ju-jitsu.

… but it doesn’t have to be that way.  We don’t have to stop at the emotional outburst.  Or agree to go to the designated, cordoned off, safe, all-plastic playground.  We can see through this if we want to.  We can choose to tackle the roots of the issues.

I hope what I’m trying to write is clear.  It’s not that I don’t understand why so many of us are offended.  I just think we need to focus at the source.

Racism can be ended.  Sexism can be ended.  Classism can be ended.  …and all the rest.

But for that we need solidarity and a united front against the cause of this inequality.

And we’re not going to do that if we continue to do the job of the oppressor for them.

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alexfelipe (alex felipe)
Scarborough, Ontario
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