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The Racist Pitfalls of Halloween

October 26, 2016, 3:00 PM UTC

Halloween is always a busy time for people doing diversity work, as the opportunity for racist insults abound. For folks who enjoy it, Halloween is a time to be creative, perhaps exchanging the corporate mask for another, more expressive one. Something funny or maybe, a little edgy. But one mistake, even at the neighborhood ScareFest, and you’re a viral disgrace with your own hashtag.

Every year, it’s a thing. Imagine some people show up to work dressed in orange prison jumpsuits with the words “illegal alien” scrawled across the front – a popular choice in the past – who are then theatrically bricked into their cubicles by people wearing Donald Trump masks. Points for topicality, but you’re still going to HR. Please don’t paint your face black, brown, yellow or red. It’s always racist. No religious garb. No suicide bomber shtick. Skip the Black Lives Matter jokes. And yet, it will happen, and I’ll be linking to the inevitable aftermath stories next week.

This year, there’s the World Series to navigate, which is particularly tricky. Cub fans should probably avoid bringing Billy goats into the office, but Cleveland fans have a different problem. Their logo and mascot, “Chief Wahoo” is one of the more painfully racist images that remain in professional sports. Chief Wahoo appears on player jerseys and caps and can be found on merchandise that generates millions of dollars of revenue. It’s part of the Cleveland landscape. “It’s absolutely everywhere,” Philip Yenyo, 50, an artist and member of the Mexica tribe told the Washington Post. “You can’t escape it.”

From the same story: “Tara Houska, a tribal lawyer and prominent activist, finds no imagery in sports more offensive than Wahoo. He has blood-red skin, swollen cheeks, triangular eyes, a bulbous nose, an expansive grin and a single feather protruding from the back of his head. ‘It really is just a blatant racial caricature,’ said Houska.”

But there is hope. After decades of theatrically dressing like Wahoo at games, Cleveland superfan Pedro Rodriguez recently decided to dial back the cosplay. Where once he loved the way his spirited performance connected him with the crowd, years of sparring with Native American protestors slowly opened his mind. This year, Rodriquez lost the facepaint and apologized to them on Opening Day. “I just thought it was the right thing to do,” he said. It’s a sweet story and a good reminder that sometimes it just takes a little time to realize that the world has changed and we can too.


Check out the links below for more on cultural appropriation, and you’ll find some good advice here on Halloween in the workplace from The Society for Human Resource Management.

On Point

Amazon’s latest ‘American Girl’ movie directly takes on police violenceIt’s the first in a series of films based on the American Girl doll line, and it’s not messing around. The setting is the 1960s, and the lead character, a ten-year-old black girl named Melody, is surrounded by inequality, witnesses police brutality and experiences racism in her daily life. “We couldn’t imagine it would be as relevant as it is when we took this on,” Amazon’s head of kids programming told Fortune.Fortune

Undercover in a (mostly) white militia group
These self-organized and heavily armed groups exploded in number after Barack Obama became president, fueled in part by conspiracy theories about an evil federal government. But for the many ex-military members, they also provide purpose and meaning. “Part of that seems to be a kind of sense that they — white men — are losing power, and I think a lot of them are not happy with that.”

Gambia is leaving the International Criminal Court
The ICC was originally set up in 2002 to try the world’s worst crimes against humanity, like genocide, and other war crimes, but they have yet to try anyone who isn’t African, charges the Gambian Information Minister. Gambia joins South Africa and Burundi who have already quite the ICC under similar protest. "[It’s] an International Caucasian Court for the persecution and humiliation of people of colour, especially Africans," the minister said.

How mass incarceration affects urban neighborhoods
NBC has a deeply reported piece on the scale and impact of mass incarceration, filled with stories from real people who are trying to save their families and their dreams in neighborhoods that feel largely abandoned. It’s a must read. “Mass incarceration, poverty and violence go hand-in-hand, and nowhere is that relationship more striking than in our country’s most segregated cities.” Side note: Lockup, the prison reality program, is often the highest-rated show on MSNBC.

Donald Trump’s rhetoric on race is nothing new to black voters
You can almost hear the weariness coming from the black folks interviewed in Yamiche Alcindor’s latest piece on race and the election. The shock that white people feel when they hear Trump publicly dismiss black issues is misplaced, they say. They’ve heard all of this, and more, for years, often from people with real position power in their lives.
New York Times

Colin Kaepernick says that change needs to come from the top
In an extended conversation with The Undefeated, 49ers' Kaepernick talked about leveraging his unique privilege into real action. Part of the issue, he says, is changing the ratio in board rooms and executive suites. But access and impact aren’t always the same thing. “Ultimately, even when there are people who can get in those positions, they might not get the same opportunities,” Kaepernick said, referring to corporate board candidates and potential vendors.
The Undefeated

The Woke Leader

A handy guide to cultural misappropriation
Simon Fraser University in Vancouver has published a thoughtful resource that can help marketers and designers distinguish between borrowing themes for creative inspiration or tribute – which is good -  and creating work that disrespects, or does unintentional emotional or economic harm to a group of people. Which is bad. These are not always easy aesthetic distinctions, but the legal ones are pretty clear. For example, the Navajo Nation owns 86 trademark registrations that prevent designers from appropriating their imagery.
Simon Fraser University

A documentary explores the portrayal of “American Indians” in Hollywood
Reel Injun is an outstanding 2009 documentary directed by Cree filmmaker Neil Diamond, that explores the portrayal of the Indian through the Hollywood lens through the century-long history of film. There are many jaw-dropping surprises; some of the earliest films were made by indigenous people celebrating their own culture. Then along came John Wayne. Though an inspiring indigenous filmmaker movement is growing, they’re struggling to balance the deep cultural damage that continues to this day. If you make time for one film outside your normal viewing habits, please make it this one.

Watch Native Americans react to people wearing headdresses at music festivals
Dressing up as a sexy Indian is a thing that just won’t stop, for some reason, but these members of the Southern California Indian Center wish it would. Their reactions are painful to watch but instructive. Even Jared Leto makes an appearance in some footage, prompting one woman to hilariously lament the loss of a potential life partner. Sorry, Jared, you’ve crossed a line.


We live in a world where racist acts are committed by people that don’t see themselves or their behaviors as racist.
—Evette Dionne