By Ellen McGirt
Updated: October 30, 2017 2:48 PM ET

It’s that time of year when anyone who writes about race braces for the worst. Of course, I mean Halloween.

There are myriad ways to offend during this festive season, and now that everyone has a video-enhanced publishing platform in their pocket or purse, we all get to see the poor judgment on display.

An Alabama teacher blackened his face and dressed up as Kanye West. A Staples employee in Pleasant Hill, CA greeted shoppers in blackface, then claimed to be “a sharpie.” A man walked into two Omaha, Neb. area malls dressed as a “mass shooter.” An “Anne Frank costume for girls” was whisked from the shelves after a backlash.

Just say no.

Don’t don a sombrero and act like a jerk, implore colleges across the country. Don’t wear an Indian headdress and face paint. (Here is an amazing resource for creators and designers on how to avoid appropriating from indigenous communities.)

GQ also offers a helpful style guide. “You can change your skin color to a shade found in gumballs,” they explain. See also: jolly green giant, yellow minions, and the like. The Daily Show had similar advice.

Also, don’t be the border wall or a sexy border control officer, a Chinese gentleman or sexy Geisha or Eskimo.

Fans of Cleveland baseball or D.C. football are on their own. But if you show up in a Colin Kaepernick jersey, you might as well double down and take a knee if you get sent to human resources.

It’s also the time of year when we discuss, again, why black, brown, and yellow face is always unacceptable. But The Root’s Anne Branigan has a fascinating analysis that adds something new to the conversation. She builds on the complex history of minstrelsy while deconstructing the ‘I just didn’t realize it was so offensive’ defense.

“Nonblack people keep doing blackface because they find it enjoyable,” she says. Boom, there it is. And while they may rank it low on the scale of possible insults, it still comes with significant risks if shared beyond their intended audience. “Why do they insist on doing it even as the consequences for that kind of behavior — suspensions from school, online harassment or permanent expulsions from student organizations — become increasingly clear and well-publicized?”

Branigan says it’s a form of “backstage racism,” a performance that is designed to bind the performer with an audience of like-minded allies. Citing the research of sociologists Leslie Picca and Joe Feagin, “white people — mostly young white men, but not always — take pleasure in these jokes and know that they are offensive. Anti-black racism is a way for them to pass the time, to connect, to feel a cheap sense of rebellion even though there is nothing inherently rebellious about American racism — it has always been the status quo.”

“It’s kind of a white male bonding ritual,” Feagin tells her.

White supremacy as an operating system has always been violent. But it’s become increasingly dangerous in the last year. Even if you consider yourself a member of the “what’s the big deal?” crowd, if you choose to perform an act of stereotype, particularly in skin-altering makeup, you are also sending a menacing message.

Find another way to pass the time than performative racism. But do call it out if you see it at a party or water cooler near you.

And if you must be a different color, be blue, like a smurf. But not the blue dude from Avatar, if you get my drift.


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