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Speak Right On

A book is usually a one-sided affair: only the author reveals her thoughts and feelings. The airing of readers’ reactions typically is left to book groups. But not now, not here.

With this blog I want to hear what you have to say. Though I will use Speak Right On as a springboard and reference point for my blog entries, you don’t need to read my book to join the conversation.

Just speak right on, from the heart.

“He who does his best for his own time, lives for all times.”

African proverb

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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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Comments 2

Guest - Jeannette Gagan on Monday, 31 October 2016 18:37

Thank you , Mary, for highlighting past transgressions of Halloween. Although what I will share did not occur on Halloween, it definitely portrays what you are writing about. When I was in high school each spring a Minstrel Show was staged that included male students performing as black people by putting on make-up and acting in ways they thought were typical. This was of course far fetched-- there was only one small family who were black who lived in the town. They kept a very low profile, were literate and law-abiding citizens. At that time I did not have a raised consciousness regarding racial matters and in subsequent years I have wondered what this was like for them. Hopefully such Minstrel Shows are a thing of the past.

Thank you , Mary, for highlighting past transgressions of Halloween. Although what I will share did not occur on Halloween, it definitely portrays what you are writing about. When I was in high school each spring a Minstrel Show was staged that included male students performing as black people by putting on make-up and acting in ways they thought were typical. This was of course far fetched-- there was only one small family who were black who lived in the town. They kept a very low profile, were literate and law-abiding citizens. At that time I did not have a raised consciousness regarding racial matters and in subsequent years I have wondered what this was like for them. Hopefully such Minstrel Shows are a thing of the past.
Mary Neighbour on Monday, 31 October 2016 22:34

Aaaach!
On the brighter side, one of the good things about kids moving from small towns to cities is that it's hard to avoid having your consciousness expanded. I know you have said you made this transitions (as I did). And today, anyone engaging in minstrel shows and stereotyped caricatures would surely be called out on it. At least I hope so.

Aaaach! On the brighter side, one of the good things about kids moving from small towns to cities is that it's hard to avoid having your consciousness expanded. I know you have said you made this transitions (as I did). And today, anyone engaging in minstrel shows and stereotyped caricatures would surely be called out on it. At least I hope so.
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Wednesday, 20 March 2019