There was a discussion on the local public radio station about Halloween costumes, or at least it was supposed to be a discussion. The topic was “What is acceptable and what is offensive?”
The origin of the discussion was the Julianne Hough black face incident.
No, it wasn’t actually what is historically recognized as black face, make up that is considered racist due to its connection with Hollywood’s use of white actors in black roles. She had darkened her skin to appear as a character from a television program, who in reality is a racist stereotype of black people. A more enlightened audience might see the irony of dressing as a character who many people find offensive drawing more attention than the character herself.
Black face is a symbol of discrimination. We tend to get a little keyed up over symbols. I think it’s because we can’t seem to talk about “touchy” issues without shouting. So we do some incredibly stupid things. We develop “less than lethal” forms of restraint because we using fire hoses to control crowds reminds us of when we used them in the sixties to break up race riots. And of course, anything to do with race riots is racist. So we kill a couple of dozen people each year with mace and tasers and rubber bullets. How civilized.
The discussion didn’t get too far, two “experts” were present, and it didn’t take them long to offend the host. He’s a pretty liberal guy, but when one of the “experts” veered off into a “only black people can be offended” rant, the direction of the interview changed. He facilitated the “experts” in making total asses of themselves.
As more calls were taken, it was evident that they were being filtered to highlight the “experts'” prejudices. Next call “I’m dressing in Indian clothing, mostly because I find the dresses beautiful. I wear Indian dresses at least once a week, but I’ll be going in full dress with a red dot on my forehead”. Expert number one “Well, those people (emphasis mine) dress like that all the time, so it isn’t offensive”. Expert number two ” I agree. Traditional dress isn’t offensive”. Earlier, dressing “gangsta”, pants pulled down and a hoodie were labeled “racist” because they were a negative stereotype. The term “Those people” is clearly a discriminatory term.
Next call “My son is dressing as a Zombie Jesus, I think it may be a little offensive”. Expert number one “I don’t find anything offensive about that at all”. Host breaks in, “What if it were a Zombie Mohammed?”, to which expert number one replies “I’m not religious, so it doesn’t bother me”.
So much for being an expert. Knowing what is offensive to you is not the measure of sensitivity. If we’re discussing “What is offensive” the question is what is offensive to other people. If you don’t realize that Islamic law prohibits the wearing of a Bindi, you don’t know what offends other people. If you don’t know that any portrayal of Mohammed is an offense worthy of riots, you’ve been living in a cave. If you don’t think black people can be racists, you’re an idiot, and probably a racist.
We do seem to have trouble deciding what is appropriate in our society. We use a number of words interchangeably, “Racist”, “Discriminatory”, “Offensive”, “Hate”, “Phobic”. Each of these words have different meanings, and using them carelessly degrades their meanings.
A Racist makes judgements about people based on their race. “Race” can be a moving target, is “Arab” a race? Jew? Pole? White?
Discrimination is to make a choice based on personal preferences. If I hire Bob because he is better qualified, it is still discrimination, if I hire Bob because he’s straight and the other candidate is gay, it is illegal discrimination.
Offensive is what someone else takes offense to. If you’re wearing a white robe and pointed hat to a Klan meeting, no one will find it offensive, but anyone sensitive to the feelings of ten percent of the population would find it offensive.
Hate is a very strong, overused word. I don’t like Telemundo, that doesn’t mean I hate Spanish, or Latinos. Making fun of someone because they’re overweight is insensitive, not hateful.
Phobic denotes a clinical anxiety, not a distaste. Someone who attacks someone is not afraid of them. If Sally uses derogatory terms for homosexuals, she is not homophobic. She probably doesn’t hate gay people, she’s rude.
This isn’t terribly complex. Don’t make it that way. Use the appropriate terms and we can work on the problem instead of the language.