Race: October 2006 Archives

Halloween Costume Ethics

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Jason Sperber has some thoughts worth considering about when Halloween costumes are offensive and worth avoiding. Jason and I weren't close friends ourselves, but we had several friends in common during college, and we often sat at the same table in the dining hall. I don't think either one of us expected to have much if any contact with each other after we graduated, but I recently discovered that he's blogging in several locations, mostly in the context of race, and I found enough of it intriguing to add his blogs to my RSS reader. I've put up links some of the places he blogs in the sidebar, but I've been waiting for a post by him that I wanted to say something about so I could mention him in a post.

I think a lot of people who claim certain kinds of costumes to be offensive do an absolutely awful job of explaining why, and those who don't understand the reasons usually just write them off as being too over-sensitive. Sometimes maybe people can be over-sensitive and get offended at something they shouldn't. Other times maybe there is cause for offense, but it's not a grave enough concern to justify the kind of outrage you sometimes see, and besides there might be more productive ways to address such issues than complaining about one's rights being violated simply because one has been offended. Still, there are good reasons to avoid certain kinds of Halloween costumes, and Jason provides some good explanations (taken from tolerance.org) for why it might be bad to use a variety of different kinds of costumes. The reasons vary in kind and in degree of importance. I want to try to make the moral reasoning more explicit, since some of them go a little too quickly for my philosophically-trained ethical thought processes.

Three years ago Brown University President Ruth Simmons commissioned the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice "to investigate and to prepare a report about the University’s historical relationship to slavery and the transatlantic slave trade". Simmons describes their purpose more broadly, however:

In addition, in view of the often confusing and contentious discussion of reparations, we wanted to move the examination away from a focus on reparations to learn more about the many ways in which societies past and present have dealt with retrospective justice following human rights violations such as genocide, internment, and certain forms of discrimination. We thought that our students would benefit from an understanding of those histories and experiences. Finally, we hoped that such an effort, rooted in our particular history, would excite interest among students and help them appreciate and accept meaningful discourse on even the most troubling subjects.

The steering committee has now released its report, and I'm impressed at its comprehensiveness and balanced perspective. Much of it is just chronicling historical events, including the role of slavery in New England in general, in the families involved with starting Brown, and in money that has gone into making the university what it is. The report includes reasons why understanding this history is a part of understanding the full legacy of the university, without at that point drawing any moral or political conclusions. As such, it is an excellent historical study much worth looking at.

Then they examine most of the important arguments for and against reparations, looking more broadly at other contexts in which some kinds of apologies, reparations, and similar actions have been given. They present some of the better reasons for thinking in terms of group responsibility and not individualizing so that those who identify with a group but aren't the culprits of past group activities still are heirs to the bad of the past if they can identify with the good of the tradition and be proud of it. They discuss the reasons given by proponents and opponents of reparations why certain kinds of reparations (especially monetary) would be a very bad idea and move on to other ways reparations could occur, concluding eventually with some recommendations that I almost entirely agree with. (See my post on reparations for my general perspective on this issue.)

It's very long, but I enjoyed skimming through it over breakfast yesterday morning. I was impressed at their command of the arguments on both sides of the issue and the ease with which they moved toward a very reasonable middle ground that captures what is good about both sides without getting unreasonable in the ways that I think both sides often get. When I first heard about this, I was worried that it might turn into a ridiculous undertaking, and that no longer looks like a real possibility.

Senator George Allen (R, VA) has come under a lot of fire recently for being unwilling to say that he had Jewish ancestry. He he may have been just respecting his mother's wishes, considering his obligation to her saying this in confidence to outweigh the interest of the public in knowing his ancestry (and I can see how people might disagree over which moral issues are more decisive there). He also used the word 'macaca' to describe an Indian American. He called it a term of endearment that had no meaning, but it's known in some places as a racial epithet, including in French North Africa, where Allen's mother is from, although she claims never to have heard it. Allen has been slipping in the polls for his reelection to the Senate, and I think this is might end his chances at a potential presidential run for 2008.

But the latest news is that anyone switching their vote from Allen to his opponent, James Webb, had better not be doing it out of an expectation that Webb is more racially sensitive. Webb has been unwilling to say whether he has ever used the N-word. [hat tip: Racialicious] People who knew him in his youth have said that he did use it in those days, and his unwillingness to own up to it is ruffling some feathers. He says he knows he's never used it as a racial epithet but can't recall if he's used it in another way. I had first thought that he might just be confusing use and mention, and he wasn't willing to say that he'd never used it, thinking that just mentioning the word to talk about the word counts as using it (which it doesn't), but the allegations do not involve simply mentioning the word. They involve using it as a racial epithet (which is what he says he knows he never did).

Dahlia Lithwick seems to think Justice Scalia's comments in the following quote offensive. Interestingly, there's no explanation at all of what is supposed to be offensive. Here is his comment (via Orin Kerr, who gives the broader context and says some similar things to what I'm about to say):

We have a case involving standing which says that -- you know, the doctrine of standing is more than an exercise in the conceivable. And this seem to me an exercise in the conceivable. Nobody thinks your client is really, you know, abstaining from tequila down in Mexico because he is on supervised release in the United States, or is going -- is going to apply having been deported from the country for criminal offenses, he is going to apply to come back -- and look, these are ingenious exercises in the conceivable. This is just not the real world.

I can think of several reasons someone reading this quote out of context might think it offensive, but I'm having trouble seeing how any of them is both (1) a good interpretation of the justice's words and (2) offensive in the right sort of way to justify the way Lithwick describes the offense.

Devon Carbado at blackprof.com raises some interesting questions about race on the Grey's Anatomy show. [hat tip: Racialicious] I've never watched the show, but these issues come up with quite a number of shows that I have seen. Some people have called the show colorblind because it has non-white characters playing a prominent role without ever making an issue of their race. Many who say this are thinking of colorblindness as a good thing. Racial ways of thinking involve thinking of the less privileged races as lesser or as not part of the mainstream. This kind of colorblindness is often thought of as good. It mainstreams the marginalized. On the other hand, it does mask genuine racial issues when they might be lurking beneath the surface, unnoticed by those who aren't tuned into them, ignored due to no one's willingness to talk about them for fear of being seen as cooperating with the unfortunate implications of a good deal of the negative racialized thinking that colorblindness wants to avoid.

Carbado steps into this with a claim that I think shows some great insight.

I don't think the show is colorblind at all. It is color conscious in a particular way -- namely, it presents non-white actors in roles that do not explicitly invoke race. That is neither colorblind nor race neutral.

It didn't occur to me to call this approach color-conscious at all, but I think this is right. The producers of this show are surely aware of what they are doing. The writers may not be addressing race issues, but what is color-conscious is the placing of non-white actors into these parts, and I suspect they are consciously not referencing the characters' races very much.

It's clear that it's color-conscious in at least that way, then. The question is whether this is a good or bad thing to do. Carbado worries about one aspect of it:

The latest factcheck.org entry by Emi Kolawole points out some misleading and inaccurate information in a recent ad for Michael Steele, a black Republican running for Senate in Maryland. Most of the writeup is the standard fact-checking of misleading or inaccurate information of the sort most political ads have that the site generally does well at. But one thing about Ms. Kolawole's writeup strikes me as unusual. She makes a big deal out of the fact that Lt. Gov. Steele doesn't say that he's a Republican. She says it's pretty clear from his opponent's ads that Steele is a Republican (though what she points to is not about political party but about some conservative views he has, an important distinction). But she seems to think he has an obligation to identify his party affiliation.

I wonder about Ms. Kolawole's emphasis on Steele's party. After all, most political ads I've seen this year do not mention the candidate's party. This isn't something just Republicans are doing. In the current divisive environment, candidates appreciate the opportunity to associate their name with positions they hold that might win them support, and if they can do that without the potential of a party name turning people off immediately, they often will. This seems to me to be a pretty standard practice. I don't see factcheck.org pointing it out every time other candidates do this. So why spend so much time emphasizing it in Steele's case?

The only reason I can think of is because he's one of those somewhat rare black Republicans. Perhaps Ms. Kolawole thinks black Republicans have some special obligation to point out that they don't think and vote the way black people are "supposed" to think and vote. I hope this isn't what's driving this, but I really can't think of any other reason. It doesn't make me very confident of her ability to write for a non-partisan fact-checking site if a political agenda could lead her to do this sort of thing. I'd have no problem with emphasizing someone's party when the candidate doesn't say it. It's just that Steele seems to have been singled out especially for this. I can't think of any motivation to do that unless it's out of some immoral desire to take black politicans at face value only if they are liberal Democrats, and otherwise they must make their party affiliation clear in a way that other candidates regularly do not. Non-partisan websites should not be operating by that kind of double standard. Is there some explanation for why his party affiliation would be so important to her when the factcheck.org site doesn't normally complain about this sort of thing?

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