#GhettoHalloweenTreats: A Dialogue On Race And The Desecration Of The Black Body

Written with J.E. Reich

For those who need a quick recap: on All Hallow’s Eve, #GhettoHalloweenTreats trended worldwide on Twitter. These tweets took an innocuous Halloween tradition — Halloween candy! — and morphed it into something ugly and insidiously bigoted. In the wake of this, Thought Catalog writers Kovie Biakolo and J.E. Reich decided to create something positive from something negative, springboarding from the #GhettoHalloweenTweets and dialoguing about racism and classism in America today. Here is what went down.

J.E.: To begin, here are some of my favorite examples (and by “favorite examples,” I mean “examples that make me want to concuss myself”):

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Kovie: I honestly didn’t even notice until you said something. Apart from writing, my expertise online has largely been in digital marketing and consisted of social media marketing, so I know how awful it can be. I did take a look at the trend once I got your tweet, and sadly I was not surprised. Why is no one saying anything? Well, it’s really hard to police social media, and I don’t even know if that’s desirable. But I do know that more than anything else, a lot of people see things like this as harmless; as “people just having fun.” Of course, that’s not all that is really taking place. Racist and classist discourse is at work here.

J.E.: Part of what makes this particular phenomena even more intriguing is that internalized racism plays a large part here (see: last picture/tweet). I think a lot of people could write this off as mere fun to be had, paired with the excuse that people of different racial backgrounds participated in the #GhettoHalloweenTreats trend. Conversely, I would argue the opposite. Overall, it speaks to a sense of whitewashing, in all definitions of the term: in concurrence with #GhettoHalloweenTreats, a White narrative takes an overarching prevalence. A recent example would be the “food stamps glitch,” which occurred a few weeks ago. People took to Twitter to express a gross sense of schadenfreude, using particular stereotypes that adhered to the erroneous depiction of “the Black Welfare Queen”; even though the majority of those who apply for and use the SNAP Benefits program are white. Both occurrences — or rather, Twitter events — catered to an “othering” of a racial minority. What makes it all even more egregious is that minorities play into this false narrative.

I’m reminded of a passage from Hanif Kureishi’s second novel, The Black Album, a coming-of-age story about a young man named Shahid, who is Indian-British. (Although the UK struggles with a particular strand of racism — one that differs from the US in a few historical and contextual ways — my transcontinental example is applicable here.) Early on in the novel, Shahid tells his new friend, Riaz, a conservative Muslim, about his own struggle with internalized racism:

Everywhere I went I was the only dark-skinned person. How does this make people see me? I began to be scared of going into certain places. I didn’t know what they were thinking. I was convinced they were full of sneering and disgust and hatred. And if they were pleasant, I imagined they were hypocrites…” […] Shahid said, “I wanted to be a racist…I argued, why can’t I be a racist like everyone else? Why do I have to miss out on that privilege? Why can’t I swagger around pissing on others for being inferior?

Like #GhettoHalloweenTweets, the Twitter food stamps fiasco, and Kureishi indicate: racial internalization is an institution.

Kovie: All of this is consistent with how racism and classism works and is embedded in our culture and institutions – a fact that many people either fail to completely grasp or forcefully dismiss. It has become common practice to label interactions as racist; to label others as racist. And indeed there are active racists. But racism and indeed classism is not just about interactions of prejudice. It is about the processes and structures and rhetorical and cultural practices that disadvantage entire groups of people within a system. This is why Black people can be racist, and why you’ll see internalized racism. This is why all people of color can be racist towards other people of color.

But is also why people of color cannot be racist towards White people. Yes, people of color can hold racial prejudice towards White people. But because racism is defined by its existence as an institution, and the institutions as we have come to live in them, are not set up in a way that put White people or poor people at a disadvantage. This is why reverse-discrimination is not a thing. But it is also why internalization of these institutions is experienced by people of color. People of color exist within these institutions and are shaped and socialized by these institutions. This is what I was alluding to in my Blackface, Racial Costumes, and Racism piece. People of color are victims of the system, but also participants. Poor people are victims but also participants. Of course, I would theoretically like to argue that this participation in one’s oppression, if it is within an institution that one has little individual choice in, in terms of socializations, it would actually makes one a double-victim. But that is just a personal perspective that I hope to develop into concrete theory one day.

J.E.: I can’t say that I entirely agree with your opinion that people of color cannot be racist towards White people. Bigotry is bigotry, no matter how you angle it. (For instance, I would argue that anti-Semitic views held by groups like the New Black Panther Party and its leader Malik Zulu Shabazz would be an example of this — though that’s another conversation for another time). However, I think that there are large paradigm shifts when it comes to POC-on-white racism, namely due to the hierarchal structures and institutions that you so precisely elucidated. Essentially, internalized racism is an expression of rage within a system that devours us whole.

Kovie: To address your first point and to reiterate my prior one, I have to ensure that the distinction between racism and racial prejudice is made clear. In the academy and both in my upbringing and training, we do distinguish between the two which is why I discuss them separately. Racial prejudice as I had mentioned, is something that can be experienced and perpetrated by any person of any race towards any person of another race. Which is why Black people definitely can and have and do inflict racial prejudice – towards Black people, towards White people, towards Latinos/Hispanics, etc. Definitely. But it is racism that exists in the institutions – the structures, the processes, etc. Racism versus racial prejudice – do I make the distinctions clear?

Now, I think anti-Semitism is one heck of another problem altogether. Of course, I have read some of your work and I think that you are better equipped to talk about it than I am. But I do know that being Jewish is both a race and a religion, and it can be both, and it can be either. I think from the institutional perspective, Judaism is disadvantaged in institutions, and in a culture that privileges Christianity. But I also know that over-time, Jews, like the Irish and some other peoples, have also been absorbed into “Whiteness.” So, it’s a very interesting group to study in privilege theories in this sense. Anti-Semitism however, is of course an institutional practice as well but it must also be contextualized in the changing social position of seeing many Jews as separate from White, to seeing Jews as being part of Whiteness. As for the New Black Panther Party, I must admit that I am not as familiar with the group as I ought to be. (That is to say,I have not studied them in detail) But even when what they profess is institutionalized religious prejudice, and indeed racial prejudice, I don’t believe it is racism in the context of institutionalized racism.

J.E.: I can’t help but think of the shooting of Trayvon Martin — and George Zimmerman’s subsequent trial and (absurd) exoneration — in regards to racism versus racial prejudice. A lot of Zimmerman supporters and apologists pointed to Zimmerman’s multiracial heritage to excuse the idea of his violent actions as being racially motivated. So what happens, in this case? When someone enjoys the fruits of White privilege who is not exactly White — when someone, for lack of a better term, is “passing” — and commits a racially motivated crime or act, is it racism, or racial prejudice?

Kovie: Great question! I think context is everything. For me, it ALWAYS matters. In the first place, regardless of Zimmerman’s multicultural heritage and Caucasian phenotype, he is still an individual who was socialized in a system of institutionalized racism. Although I must admit this just shows how much all of this “race stuff” is complicated and complex, because to me – a person who only moved to the USA initially for college, I would never think that Zimmerman could “pass” for White. Still, this is actually a perfect example of the institutionalized racism that people of color themselves harbor against other people of color. People of color are not exempt just because they are victims of racism as well. They experience the discriminatory practices of the institutionalization of racism but they also practice it. Which is why Zimmerman, a person of color can stereotype another person of color. In this case, it was a young Black boy that was being perceived as potentially dangerous – which given the discourse of this intersectional identity, is not surprising.

A lot of people tried to make an argument that this wasn’t about race. But the truth is in America’s history, in what the Black male body signifies in this culture to this day – it is impossible to remove the racial contexts from this incident. However, it further showcases the internalization of prejudice of people of color, even when it’s by another person of color. The same thing with #GhettoHalloweenTreats. It’s a showcase of internalized racism as well as casual racism as we’ve come to experience it in 2013. Of course, no one is dying. (I hope) But it is problematic because ultimately it is attaching negative stereotypes and performances to Blackness.

J.E.: To bring it back to Halloween, I’m sure that you have seen this lovely bit of photography by now:

The Smoking Gun
The Smoking Gun

Awhile back, I wrote a piece on the trend on “Trayvoning” and the misuse of the black body; how instances of blackface, such as the picture above, and the trend of “Trayvoning” itself — posing as the dead body of Trayvon Martin and posting photos of it on the Internet — renders the black body as an object of entertainment or amusement. Although the picture above is a much more extreme example of that, I believe that #GhettoHalloweenTweets follow a similar vein. #GhettoHalloweenTweets invoke a stereotyped, twisted sense of Blackness, as ascribed by a White majority. It might not be murder, but it is equally dangerous.

Kovie: I think there is a long history of misuse and desecration of Black bodies that is imbedded in Western institutions. I think that has taken place since the time of first contact between African peoples and Europeans. I think due to the socio-political and economic powers of the West in particular, and in their contact with African people, the Black body has been at the mercy of Western constructs. This is why slavery occurred the way it did; this is why colonization of African peoples occurred the way it did. Black bodies have never historically been considered by Western ideologies as equal. Slavery existed in African communities before the West, and domination of other groups existed before colonization. But what did not exist were these constructions that the Black body or the African body was by nature of such little value, to put it mildly. This is why it was easy for African peoples to be exterminated in whole groups, and of course not just African peoples but indigenous peoples everywhere. The West constructed African peoples as being sub-human, their bodies were constructed as not being like White bodies, and that difference makes all the difference.

If something is different it may not be bad but in terms of how race was socially constructed, different or “other” than White, was bad. And these constructions are imbedded in our institutions till this day. The Black body that was raped, enslaved, and the prop of White European constitutions has not escaped those constructions as far as institutions are concerned. Certainly slavery ended, colonization ended, and segregation ended. But what did not end are these constructions of “othered” bodies. In this way, it is indeed as dangerous to put on the body of a massacred young Black man as a Halloween costume, as it is to participate in #GhettoHalloweenTreats. Because both discourses amount to reducing the worth of Black bodies. Of course, there is a degree of difference. The Trayvon Martin costume – we can put a face to a name and it was a case that swept the nation. It brought out deep feelings especially in the Black American community, which is a community that has been brutalized in American history. In #GhettoHalloweenTreats, we do not have that power of such a deep cultural moment or example. But both of them are embedded in hegemonic discourse that devalues Black bodies and upholds White bodies.

And of course, some people would say that this is just a bunch of academic speak and jargon; that it is just a joke. That Black people and all people should just move on. To those people I say: This is exactly how hegemony works. Racism has left the law and has been placed mostly in the culture. And if you don’t notice, this color-blind culture has more power to be more dangerous than the law. If you don’t notice, you just participate in racist and classist discourse passively without any active rejection of the discourse. And that is exactly what most people do. White, Black, Hispanic/Latino, Asian etc. We shouldn’t deny our own racism and classism as well: That I am racist and classist and that you are racist and classist in these institutions, against the victims of these institutions, even if we are victims ourselves. But what I advocate is a rejection of that discourse in order to change how we perceive “othered” bodies. TC mark

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