Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Race to see who's right...

I grew up in a, what society calls an "urban" area. An urban area, is supposed to mean a city area, like New York, Los Angeles, Boston, etc, but has morphed into a euphemism for non-white. Or racially mixed. Or even just a predominantly black neighborhood.

Growing up in this environment was a blessing. I have been exposed to many cultures and consider myself very accepting of any and all racial backgrounds. I specifically grew up around a lot of black kids. I was what some people would have called a "wigger". I dressed, talked and acted in the influence of the culture I was surrounded by and were friends with. I was the cream in the Oreo cookie. The one white kid that hung out with the black kids. The white kid that dated only black and hispanic girls. The white kid that could get away with the, so called, N-Word.

Then I grew up. We also moved to a predominantly white neighborhood while still going to school in the old neighborhood. I wouldn't say that this new exposure to mostly white people is what made me grow up more, I was just beginning to mature and become my own person instead of emulating what I wished I was at the time. I went on to graduate from high school and start working and never really went back to that neighborhood, except for the occasional visit to a friends house. My dating choices have changed too. I don't find myself attracted to black girls anymore. I still enjoy Hispanic women, but I tend to lean more toward being attracted to white women for some reason. I think this is because of my surroundings. I find that when I've worked at a place that was predominantly black, I would feel more attracted to black girls. I'm sure there is a logical reasoning behind it, but it was never really a choice I made.

My friends since then have grown to be very much like New York City itself, a melting pot. I have many friends, both nearby and online in far away cities, of all races. It's a nice mix to have. I also tend to surround myself with pretty rational people and I'm thankful for that as well. I feel that, for the majority of the people I know, I can talk about any topic and do so freely. If I feel like something I say might be offensive to someone I care about, I will, at the very least, preface it by saying "I hope you don't find this offensive, but...". If it's someone I don't know well, I will do the same, however if they are offended, I probably wouldn't feel as bad. Either way, I try to be respectful, while also not trying to push my point of view on to people. But I also don't compromise my point of view for the sake of possibly offending someone, whatever topic that might be.

So one day, while on facebook, a new friend of mine posted a picture before Halloween. The picture was a poster.. with a message. This person is new to my life, so we're literally just becoming friends. But she is an avid "rights" person. What I mean by that is... people obviously have beliefs in things, right and wrong and all that. And I think that when we, as people, feel the need to stand up for something, when something makes us really care, we do care very much and stand up for it. Then there are people that can find the lack of equality in everything. Someone that needs a cause. That thinks that just because something, somewhere doesn't seem fair, that there should be a protest about it, or a sit in, or walk out, or what have you. At least that's the first impression that I get. And yes, everyone deserves a voice and deserves to be heard, but not everyone can and not everyone will. Our world is way too overpopulated for that to every be a reality. Things are not fair, never have been fair and never will be fair. And while some causes do deserve to be fought, too many are fought because of emotion, rather than rational thinking. Too many things in life that, if left alone, will disappear, are instead brought to the forefront and then given even more attention than if people would just let it go.

I'm not getting specific, of course, because you can plant that idea on any agenda you find yourself in disagreeance with. You're either nodding your head in agreement, or you think I'm completely nuts right now. Either way, hopefully you're thinking.

The poster in question is this:

What you're seeing is 4 kids, each of different ethnicities, holding up a picture of a Halloween costume that is a caricature of a symbol of that culture. The one thing I respected about the person that posted this poster on Facebook, is that she never pushed a cause on me. When we hang out, she never brings up something just because she thinks I need to be a part of the cause. And if you have an opposing point of view, will at least listen to it and agree to disagree. I completely disagreed with the agenda of this poster and commented.

I think that, for all intents and purposes, Halloween costumes should not be politicized. I think it's the one time of year, where no one should be subjected to having to limit their ideas at the expense of offending someone. I believe that about other areas of life as well (most even), but let's keep this on topic.

I get it. The little Hispanic boy is supposed to be sad because someone dressed up in a poncho and rode a fake donkey. The problem is, it's not as though this does not exist as a real thing. We need to look at the intention of the costume. I don't think that most of the people that decide on that costume is saying to themselves "I'm going to be a dirty Mexican this year and wear a poncho and donkey as my costume". Does that happen somewhere? Sure. Will someone, somewhere be offended by it? Maybe. But where do we draw the line between an innocent depiction of something and being racist?

Next to that is the terrorist character. And this, of course, is supposed to imply that the little Arab boy is offended by the depiction of what most people think of when you say the word "terrorist". Yes, I understand, Timothy McVeigh was white. But in our American minds, we are geared to think of what the current "threat" is. And at the moment, the people that have attempted to harm us on our soil have been of Arab decent. It sucks. And not all Arabs and Muslims are bad. Most are not, I believe. But the character in the photo isn't supposed to depict Mohammed who lives down the block and is a nice man. It's depicting a cartoonish version of what we think a terrorist is.

The Asian costume, in my opinion is the most ridiculous of the lot. The image of the Geisha is a classical look of beauty. The history behind it has more to do with prostitution and forced entertainers, more so than being an ethnic jab. The little girl in the picture should be offended as a woman, by the Geisha costume rather than as Japanese. I would almost be able to see her point in that case. The fact of the matter is, the Geisha culture, while eventually dying down, became a means of work for women in Japan and did eventually become respected entertainers and I think, is seen more as traditional and respected now a days.

The Black costume is the one I have the hardest time defending. Images of black face, hit me in a certain way, that just doesn't feel right. It's uncomfortable to watch. The movie Bamboozled, by Spike Lee satirized a modern day minstrel show brilliantly, but it was difficult to watch at times. That being said, let's consider the context. The girl in costume in the poster is a cheerleader, Whitney Isleib. 2 years ago, she thought of a costume that might be funny. She decided to go as Lil Wayne. Considering today's society, did she make a bad choice wearing the costume? Sure, I'll agree with that. Does she and should she have the right to wear this costume? Absolutely. I had an ex girlfriend that went as half of a Milli Vanilli costume for Halloween. I had reservations behind it, not because I thought it was offensive, but because I was afraid of the backlash she'd received. I didn't worry about her intentions because I knew she wasn't coming from a hateful place. She loved everyone she knew of all races. And the friends at this party accepted her costume, thought it was funny and they all drank and had a good time. In mixed company. So shouldn't Whitney Isleib have been afforded the same treatment? Apparently not, based on one thing, people knew who she was. I honestly do not believe that she decided that she wanted to offend black people that day.

On the website UrbanSportsTalk, the comments on a post about this situation, start out like this: "So what?!!! I am black and this is not dressing in Black Face! There is a difference! Lil’ Wayne is very popular and all races listen to his music, so if she wants to dress like Lil’ Wayne, who give a flying flipper? There are much more important issues to worry about. This was innocent fun." and "Hahah!! as a Black person I have to say I could give two flying craps about her dressing as Lil Wayne It’s a big difference between this and black face! I think that this is one of those costumes that’s so horrible it’s funny". So what's all the fuss about?

When I disagreed with this poster, it turned into a thread of over 50 comments. All of the commenters were white and a debate ensure. Aside from myself, there was one other particularly argumentative person. As soon as I saw her name, I knew what I was in for. Anyone that has their facebook name as JediEquality, is going to rally for this poster hardcore. And she did. Let me preface the following by saying that this person is also white, of Italian and Jewish decent, I'm told.

She started out on the offensive with: "People are actually defending these Othering, racist costumes??" I heaved a little at the word "othering". And defending the costumes was not necessarily what I was doing. What I was doing was challenging the way people think. What I was doing was trying to express that while people have the right to feel a certain way about something that might hurt their feelings, those people that have offended them, have the right to be offensive, if they so choose. You can't figure out intention without actually sitting down and talking to someone. The problem with today's society is that it's easier to assume something will offend someone and get rid of it altogether, rather than actually see where someone is coming from.

The ironic thing of this conversation about racial offense was that this person, I felt, was doing the very thing that she was rallying against. She made comments like "Figures it's white dudes doing that. (And yes, Jewish passes for white in America.)". And with that, she completely lost me. Any attempt at an actual conversation went out the window. Because the rationality was thrown out. In defending the cause of this poster and the marginalization of people of those ethnicities, she marginalized my opinion because I was white and apparently privileged because of it.

She went on to say, "We live in a society that values whiteness and devalues Otherness. When you're considered white, you are not subjected to the same things a person who is not considered white is, so you don't have the same consciousness a person of color has when it comes to what is racist and what is not, unless you consciously choose to educate yourself on this. When a person of color says something is racist or offensive to them, it is not your place as a white or white-perceived person to try to lecture them or anyone else on why it's not racist, or 'surely they didn't mean it that way'."

Fair enough. Eventually, she apologized and settled down and we got down to business and both calmly discussed how we felt and agreed to disagree.

Racial issues and differences are interesting to me. Especially having had an exposure to black culture that the average white kid doesn't have. And while I wanted to be part of the culture I emulated, the difference between me and a lot of kids that emulate the culture these days, is that I was accepted. I was considered a peer. My black friends would call me "redbone" as a joke. Or say things like "you're not white". Coupled with my ability to think rationally, objectively, and without emotion, I think this gives me a unique perspective.

But was I wrong? Was I just thinking unemotionally and not respecting the opinions of the people of those other cultures? Was I perhaps debasing those cultures by brushing the possible offensive nature of these costumes?

I forgot it about the post for a day or two, when I saw another post on Facebook. I have recently become a very big fan of MMA and saw a Halloween post by an MMA fighter that went as follows: "Miguel Angel Torres: Halloween costume, no this is my everyday attire." and had the picture to the right attached to it.

It got me thinking again. So I used the aforementioned melting pot of friends I have to my advantage. I rounded up a few people who's opinions I value, people I knew wouldn't sugar coat things and get right down the their real feelings. I took each racial/ethnic background and created conversations with the group of each of them and started a round table discussion of sorts. While you might find their reactions surprising, I didn't.

I asked them if they felt these costumes were offensive. I asked them to look at the posters, but to forget any subtext or message that the poster was trying to push. Did they feel offended that this costume existed? Would they be offended if someone was wearing it. Cher started the conversation by saying, "Honestly I wasnt offended by any of it. To be offended by it, for me I would have to take it as a personal attack. No one dressed up as Cher, just a black person and I feel that I dont represent every black person."

Deron did find the costumes offensive, but not for the same reasons the poster was implying. He says "As a black male I'm more offended when I'm around a group of white people and all of a sudden they feel the need to be hood and greet me with WASUP CUZ and then try to attempt a handshake that they don't even know." I believe that he was more offended at someone's attempt at being "down" than with the costume itself. He continued "Just be yourself. I can tell the difference between a white person that's into the culture and someone trying or someone trying to showcase 'their blackness'. I'm also more offended by white girls that take the 'gangsta' picture with the hat cocked".

When I spoke to my Central/South American friends, Daniel mimicked Miguel Angel Torres' idea and said "once I dress(ed) as a burrito loco!!". Stephanie said "sometimes people just take things way too personal". Hector made the most vocal and logical argument "if you're gonna be offended over a costume, you gotta ask yourself WHY are you offended. If i see some dude dressed in a pancho riding a stick donkey, fine, i never rode a donkey, I ain't Juan Valdez....why is the dude in the lower right corner offended? is he a terrorist and offended some dude dressed up like a terrorist? ya know what i'm saying? pick and choose your battles, and don't look like an asshole for it".

Speaking of the terrorist costume, surely a person of Middle Eastern decent would be offended by the costume. Especially considering our currently climate. Turns out, not so much. Naader states, "Im personally not offended by the costume. Sure, the costume IS insensitive. That's the nature of many stereotypes. I don't feel we should make it off limits for people to wear them." He did offer a warning though, "I'd say that people who choose to wear them should keep in mind that certain people might take offense." but was also realistic about it, "The caricatures are almost to be expected during wartime, because we see these as stereotypes of the enemy. It's harmful to have all these stereotypes at a time when we need to construct a better post-war world....Now, I don't find any of the costumes you cited as really offensive. Comedy is based on caricature, often, and Halloween gives people the chance to live out that comedy. My life is not greatly affected by the image of the bomber, and most people do not develop negative images of me based on my ethnicity."

Finally, the Geisha costume. I feel ridiculous even addressing it, but so did Matt who started the conversation with a joke, "The poster offends me because the other ones seem like better steryotypes then the japanese one". I asked him to be serious for a minute and tell me what he really thought. He says, "They (Geisha) were part of the everyday culture historically...i dont think costumes should have limits except if they physically harm others, or display certain things which have been deemed inapropriate for society (like pornography)"

The part that bothered me most about the argument that ensued over the poster was that, while I was being called out for supposedly brushing aside the feelings of someone that could be offended by the post, I was faced with what I thought was more dangerous than what I was being accused of. And that was assuming that the people of those races should be offended by these images. While it may be insensitive to think that someone is overreacting a certain way or making too much of something, it's way more insulting to assume that they SHOULD act or feel a certain way without allowing the ability to think critically about it. And it turns out, that when given that chance to think critically, and as an individual, the things we think are so offensive, really aren't.

So I asked everyone one final question. What would you say to someone, specifically someone white, that was supposedly defending their honor, and found these costumes offensive either personally or on their behalf?

Nix says "i would tell that person that I understand where they felt offended but at the same time you have to take it for what it is. those costumes were in no way created to attack anyone as much as it was to entertain. If its not your cup of tea then that's that. I find BET absolutely offensive but loads of people watch it."

Cher says "I wouldnt be offended that a costume like this exists. I would look at it as...something for pretend. I would not question as to why a costume to be a black person was made. I would just look at it as someone wanted to simply dress up and be something other than who they really are"

Naader says "I would remind them that this is a free country, that the costumes reflect a humorous point of view, and that Halloween is one of the few times of year when people are allowed to dress up as ridiculous characters."

But I think that Matt says it best, "I'd tell them they should worry about themselves, not nessasarily as a ethnic representitive, but as an individual. What gives them to right to speak for people whom they arn't or havn't gotten direct opinion from? If someone does get offended by something it's on them to take action.
I say that cars are harmful and smoking is harmful. Life isn't perfect nor should it be."

We should respect one another. We should love one another. And we should accept one another. Even if it means we can offend one another.

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