Every year just before Halloween I give a mini "lecture" on costume decorum. Aside from knee-slappers like "Real nurse and police uniforms are actually quite baggy and unrevealing" I remind the young folks that despite what people did in the small town or all-white suburb from whence they came, racial and ethnic groups are not costumes. Moreso than any of the material I cover in my classes, I feel like this is important. I'm sure a lot of them roll their eyes and don their offensive costumes anyway. Getting through to one or two of them each semester, though, feels like a victory. If anybody thinks twice about doing something offensive on account of that brief reminder I consider it a win.
I rarely attend Halloween parties, but when I do I find that this rule is violated even among adults who should know better. In grad school I hosted the departmental party one year and, sure enough, a grad student showed up as an Illegal Immigrant. I'll let your imagination complete his costume. This year I attended the faculty Halloween party and another person showed up in similar Mexican Caricature garb. These are adults in their 30s and 40s. People with advanced degrees.
The reveler in question was a stranger to me, the new beau of one of the women I know through work. I asked her, "What is he supposed to be dressed as?" while he was elsewhere. Some sort of Mexican somethingorother, she replied. "Well that's kind of fucked up, isn't it?" said Drunk Ed. Six weeks later, this woman still has not spoken to me.
Now, I am a dick. I am used to having to apologize to people when I say things that I think are hilarious (They are.) but hurt someone else's feelings. I don't believe anyone should be afraid of apologizing. It's useful to humble yourself on occasion and admit that you aren't always right. So naturally, I felt like if this other person is angry then clearly I should apologize. Then a strange thing. I thought about it and I realized I wasn't sorry at all. The only thing worse than refusing to apologize is giving a fake apology. So, I decided, fuck it. If someone chooses to ostracize me because I pointed out that their friend's decision to wear a "Mexican" costume is not appropriate, then I can live with that.
After two weeks of reading and hearing everyone complain – with justification – about the things all of their Racist Friends say, I've been thinking hard about why anyone would want Racist Friends. This is an excellent time to listen to or read what people say, consider it along with what role if any this person plays in your life, and cut the cord. Ask yourself, "Why am I friends with this person?" and answer honestly. The way social networks work these days, people seem to have a vast network of "friends" who are actually near-strangers. People we knew in grade school. Some guy you met at a party once. That woman who worked at so and so with you back in 2004. And if these people are "real" friends or even relatives, what are you getting out of being friends with blatantly racist people?
I've heard the arguments. If we stop talking to each other over disagreements, our social circles become an echo chamber free of dissenting opinions! He's a good person, he's just really racist! These are not good points. At all. If you're not willing to say, "You know what, if you're going to insist on saying racist shit constantly I don't think I want to be friends," you may want to think about what is really important to you. If you're willing to tolerate people high-fiving over Thugs who Have it Coming getting gunned down because telling them to piss off would be inconvenient for you, that's telling.
Someone pointed out that black people, unlike white people, don't have the luxury of "unfriending" racism and having it go away. I disagree in the sense that it obviously doesn't go away. Everyone still has to live with it, with more consequences for some of us than for others. It won't be going away anytime soon, but we're not obligated to be pals with it and pretend like it's OK in the meantime.