On Halloween and Teachable Moments


It seems that Halloween can never pass by without its share of commentary on the costumes, chocolate, and the social implications of both. Quite frequently, the issue is beaten to death each and every year, but, like clockwork, someone in our social circles or a friend of a friend or some celebrity manages to sound off a tone deaf dog whistle to all things racist and sexist. This is not an easily weathered holiday for the culturally sensitive.  

This was made even more apparent today. In the middle of the workday, my sister in law texted me a picture from a costume contest that took place in her small town in South Dakota. Now, I’ve already told you that South Dakota has a lot of racial sensitivity problems, but this one seemed to exemplify everything wrong with white privilege. The picture was of a lady who won one of the categories in the contest. She did so by putting on blackface and going as Aunt Jemima.


Now, there are all sorts of pre-Halloween lectures that happen as to why a white person should never, ever, ever wear blackface, but it seems often like people just don’t care. If you don’t understand what is wrong with blackface, let me explain a little bit.


Blackface comes out of vaudeville and theatrical tradition, and was often used to propagate racist stereotypes of black men and women. According to Wikipedia,


“Stereotyped blackface characters developed: buffoonish, lazy, superstitious, cowardly, and lascivious characters, who stole, lied pathologically, and mangled the English language. Early blackface minstrels were all male, so cross-dressing white men also played black women who were often portrayed either as unappealingly and grotesquely mannish; in the matronly, mammy mold; or highly sexually provocative.”


If there was a character in black face, he or she was the comic relief, but not in a good way.


It should go without saying at this point: because we are not living a post-racial society, because blackface still has extremely racist connotations, it is never okay for a white person to don black face for a “costume.”


This information is all well and good – indeed, I hope I am preaching to the choir on these issues here on this blog space.


But dealing with the issue in reality is a social minefield. What do you say and how do you react when someone shows up to the local Halloween party in a racist costume? Or a sexist one? How do you handle it when you hear someone you know and like making a joke about rape? Or makes a joke in which an oppressed class is the punchline?


It can be a tough line to walk. On one level, we want the conversations we participate in to be edifying, and a lot of us recognize that what we joke about and what we find funny can reveal a lot about ourselves – our attitudes toward certain segments of society, toward certain cultures, and unfortunately, toward real life traumatic events. And sometimes what is revealed about the people in our lives can be very discomfiting. Presumably, since we want to keep these many of these people as friends, we end up wondering how, exactly, to navigate this problem.


In my life as a feminist, I’ve found I’ve had to draw certain lines in relationships and mark out certain boundaries. The way a person handles offensive jokes and humor can reveal a lot about their sense of empathy and grace. If I point out that a joke is offensive or that I feel hurt by it, there are four common responses, as follows:


  1. “You’re just being too sensitive. Get over it.”
  2. “You know I don’t actually feel that way! It’s just a joke!”
  3. Making another sexist joke in my direction, thereby making things worse.
  4. A genuine apology. (this one is the rarest of them all, but it does happen).


Quite frequently, if the response is one of the first three (or sometimes all three at once!), it can create tension in the relationship. There are a number of things that run through my head and that I worry about when a friend makes such a joke in my presence (and it is almost always a male friend, thus the pronouns.): Will he think of me differently after I speak up? Do I care if he does? Will I be categorized as the humorless wench who didn’t think his jokes were funny? Will he actually change his mind? Will this create tension in this relationship? Do I want to create tension right now? Was the joke bad enough to warrant a censure? Am I going to make this guy angry by speaking up? Do I feel comfortable being in the same room with him after learning this piece of information? Will I feel safe with him in the future? What’s going to happen if he learns that I’m friends with at least seven survivors of assault? Does he have the capacity for change based on what I know of him already?


It’s a lot to process in a couple of seconds’ time, but I assure you, when you tell a sexist/offensive joke in my presence, all of this happens.


I feel like the best way to expound on this is through a story.


When I first began dating my ex, we’d only known each other for a few days, so there’s all this nervousness and tension – is this a date? Are we dating? Does he like me that way? (I can be incredibly, incredibly dense when it comes to romantic relationships) – and I wanted desperately to make a good impression. On the way back into town on our second date, he asked me how a man can be a feminist – he’d read a large chunk of my blog, and wanted to express solidarity with the principles. I was blown away – here was a guy I really liked, and he was asking how he could be a better feminist! What planet am I on again? So I explained that a lot of it is just being sensitive to female issues, being aware of the privilege he has in being a white male, and not denigrating the experiences of women around him. He agreed that this was the sort of stuff he could do, and the conversation moved on.


And then he told a rape joke.


I didn’t know what to say. Had he not just heard what I said about being sensitive to women and their struggles? Does he not realize that rape is a big part of that struggle? Since he was relaying the joke in the form of a comment his mom had made to him, did he think it was okay because his liberal mother was the one who had made the joke in the first place? And most importantly, how will he react if I go all “sensitive humorless feminist” on him? This is only our second date, after all.


In the moment, I decided to let it slide. I chalked it up to unintentional ignorance on his part, and while I didn’t laugh uproariously, I gave some nervous fake laughter, and said “oh, that’s so terrible.” But all the tension, all the questions, all the nerves in that moment are etched permanently in my memory.


My decision in that moment was one of grace and discerning. I decided, for better or worse, to give this young man a chance. It could be that this joke was revealing to me a deeper, insidious attitude toward women. Or it could be that he just simply doesn’t realize that it’s insensitive – a mark of his privilege in never having to worry about people who joke about sexual assault. Considering what I knew of him to that point – most importantly that he is a man who makes every attempt to be aware of his privilege – I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt and let it go. If it turned out to be a problem later on, then we would deal with it head on at that time, but I saw no need to bring it up on the second date with a guy I’d only met a few days prior.


I chose the relationship over my principles. I have feminist friends who would scoff and scold and say that I failed to stand up for my principles, especially as I could have turned it into a “teaching moment.” But a “teaching moment” that has the potential to destroy a relationship does much more harm than it does good. Feminists and other activists have to walk a fine line between holding onto one’s principles and holding on to relationships. Every day, when we choose “to differentiate [ourselves] from a doormat,” we are making the decision to sacrifice some relationships with people in our lives, in standing for our principles. Being true to oneself does not come without sacrifice, but we must always weigh the sacrifice.


Would it have been worth damaging a potential relationship with an otherwise stand-up guy in order to “stand up for my principles”?


I’ve weighed this question over and over in my head since that night, and, ultimately, my conclusion was no, no it wouldn’t have. Because despite that early faltering, C proved himself to be a good man in many ways: respecting me as a person, being a careful listener, and being sensitive to my needs and potential discomfort. I took a gamble in not fighting the small battle, and ending up winning a war. And despite the fact that we are no longer together, the relationship proved to be a great basis for learning more about myself as a feminist and learning about sacrifice in relationships.


So when we encounter the friend with an insensitive Halloween costume, when we meet a person who finds Family Guy funny, when a friend tells a rape joke, we need to evaluate the relationship and decide if it’s worth it - if it’s worth not saying anything to see how it pans out, or if we’re willing to risk losing a friendship over a little extra “sensitivity.” It would be so much easier if people would just be more culturally sensitive, but, as my sister in law’s experience with Mrs. Blackface shows, it’s not always the case. But, fellow feminists, it’s okay if you stay silent. You aren’t sacrificing some great big part of yourself to do so – it may, indeed, be the best course of action. Sacrificing a small teaching moment may lead to a further relationship that will have a much larger impact.


And other readers, be aware when you make these sorts of jokes – members of your audience may just be deciding whether or not you’re worth it, and you may not like that conclusion.