Should blackface be taboo for Halloween?

The Better UTAH Beat airs Tuesday afternoons on KVNU’s For the People. Podcasts of previous episodes are available here.
These days, choosing an appropriate Halloween costume is like navigating a minefield of political correctness. As society becomes more diverse and more accepting, that minefield will likely become more and more difficult to navigate. The nature of that minefield is likely to change over time, too.

Despite different standards for what we consider offensive, it always seemed to me that there was one thing we could all agree on: you should never wear blackface for your Halloween costume.

It’s true that there was a time when blackface was part of our entertainment culture. We had Al Jolson in the original Jazz Singer. Many African American entertainers found it their only way to work in vaudeville; Bert Williams, a well-known Ziegfield blackface performer was the highest paid African American in his day. But by the mid-20th century, our attitudes about race and racism began changing and blackface was seen as playing a significant role in cementing and proliferating racist images and perceptions.

But here we are in 2013 and blackface has become the conversation du jour after Utah native Julianne Hough, of Dancing with the Stars fame, posted photos of herself as Crazy Eyes, a character from the Netflix series Orange is the New Black. Crazy Eyes is played by actress Uzo Aduba, an African American woman.

In Utah, reaction to Hough’s decision to dress as a black woman has been decidedly mixed. Some have argued it is offensive, others have argued that it isn’t even blackface, and still others have argued that, even if it were blackface, why should it matter? So, what should you make of Hough’s decision? How should it inform your own costume selection?

With Halloween festivities to continue through the week, I’ve prepared a list of questions you can ask yourself to evaluate your own costume.

1) Does my costume reinforce existing and false stereotypes about a particular culture, race or gender? Or does it provide an opportunity to say those stereotypes are wrong or degrading?

2) Does my costume use the characteristics of a particular culture, race or gender for my own gain? In other words, am I taking advantage of a person’s particular way of life?

3) Does my costume mock a particular culture, race or gender or, rather, does it celebrate it?

These are not easy questions to answer. Partly, because the nature of today’s society–and the speed at which information travels–means that these questions need to be asked not only of yourself, but also of the people with whom you’ll be enjoying your Halloween evening, including those people who will inevitably see your costume on Facebook. Your friends, family and colleagues are all likely to have different answers to each of the questions.

So, in addition to the three questions I outlined above, I’m offering a much simpler standard, based not on political correctness, but on mutual respect. Does my costume create opportunities for dialogue? Or does my costume restrict opportunities for dialogue?

At first glance, this ethical standard may seem excessively politically correct–a remnant of a way of thinking that says we should protect people from being offended. But that’s not what I’m arguing. As the late free speech theorist James Aune used to declare, there is no constitutional right not to be offended. That means that creating opportunities for dialogue does not mean that you can’t debate or be forceful in your opinions. What it means is that everyone has the opportunity to express themselves. In other words, it accords equal speaking time.

We live in a culture that values freedom of expression as perhaps the highest good–more critical, even, than the right to accumulate property. But the freedom to speak comes with the responsibility to ensure everyone has access to the freedom to speak. If your Halloween costume either intentionally or unintentionally silences a particular viewpoint, you should probably make another trip to the costume store.

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