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Skin color is not a costume

I receive a weekly email from the New York Times that is a roundup of race-related issues called, you guessed it: "Race/Related."

I highly recommend that anyone wishing to understand race better subscribe to this. A skim of the headlines alone will be informative, and typically there are several items that I just have to read through.

This week, articles by Annie Correal and Saleem Reshamwala talked about Halloween costumes and why white people should pause and think through their choice of dressing up as a black person or character. The newsletter editor says:

Every year, it seems, people need to be reminded that skin color is not a costume; or as, Maureen Costello, director of Teaching Tolerance at the Southern Poverty Law Center, recently put it: "You can't take symbols or practices that are hurtful in the past and expect for your particular purposes that history disappears."

"Race/Related," The Times

In other words, history, like black lives, matters. Just because you are engaged in make believe doesn't mean you're acting without any historical context. Reasonable people can argue this issue from all sides, but the questions I would put to anyone are:

  • Do you think your depiction is likely to offend others?
  • If so, why would you want to proceed and be offensive?
  • Are you able to look at your actions from the perspective of those you offend?
  • Are you willing to look at yourself and understand what motivates you?

We live in times where giving racial offense is abundant. Overwhelmingly, the offense given is by whites, the offense taken is by non-whites. The history of racism is what's boiling up to the surface, and it cannot be ignored.

Yes, let's be glad that a white person can identify with a black character and want to emulate them. If I wanted to "be" Michelle Obama for Halloween, I'd be challenged to create a costume that didn't include blackface, because I'm aware of the racist underpinnings of blackface and minstrelsy in our history. I know the pain it has caused. And why would I want cause pain through caricature, when my intent is to celebrate a female superhero?

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Necessary first steps

Painting by H. L. Stephens

Among all the other things going on this time of year, there's an anniversary date you might be missing: December 6, 2015 will be the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery. By doing so, the amendment effectively righted the wrong imposed by the controversial US Supreme Court decision in Dred Scott v. John Sanford, in which Dred Scott and his family were declared slaves who "had no rights which the white man was bound to consider."

The Emancipation Proclamation, which was passed 2 years earlier, freed only Confederate slaves. The 13th Amendment, ratified in 1865, freed all slaves, estimated to be 4 million people. While there was a great deal of work still to be done in order to move our country toward an equal society with freedom and civil rights for all—work that is still ongoing—this Constitutional Amendment was a necessary first step.

In recognition of this often overlooked day, the Dred Scott Heritage Foundation (St. Louis) is hosting the first Freedom Awards Dinner tomorrow, a fundraising event honoring fourteen individuals and organizations that have contributed to civil rights and to the improvement of society in their chosen fields.  

Many readers will remember that Lynne Jackson is the founder of the Dred Scott Heritage Foundation and the great-great-granddaughter of Harriet and Dred Scott, who recently wrote the foreword for the re-release of Speak Right On: Conjuring the Slave Narrative of Dred ScottBoth Lynne and I, in our respective paths, focus on raising awareness and stimulating informed, respectful conversations about race and politics today. There are many ills in society, but each of us can do some good simply by speaking up and affirming the values of equality and justice that should be enjoyed by all.


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