• What’s the Point of Cancellation (Halloween Edition)?

    November 12, 2021 // 1 Comment »


    I’m holding an old Polaroid, taken at a Halloween party at one of my early State Department assignments in the 1980s. One of my diplomatic colleagues is in blackface, done up to look like the minstrel player who was on the “Darkie” toothpaste boxes then for sale in every drugstore in Asia. You can see a photo of the packaging; the white teeth against the minstrel player’s face were supposed to show how good the toothpaste was. My other colleague is dressed as the Frito Bandito, a caricature of Mexicans used to sell corn chips. The costume theme for the night was advertising icons. In the 1980s these were acceptable ways to advertise and acceptable costumes for Halloween.

    But looking at the photo now I realize it is a weapon. Both my State Department colleagues pictured managed their careers much better than me and are in senior positions. There is no doubt in 2021 the photo would at least make it to Buzzfeed, maybe make a bigger splash, you know “Blinken Denies Racist Diplomats in Charge” and all that. It’s a familiar playbook today, an old photo pulled out of time and litigated in the media under the harsh light of 2021. The outcome is predictable — America has no tolerance. There’s a new rule that says people who used the wrong word or gesture, no matter how long ago or in what context or with what intent or no matter what else they did in the intervening years of their life, should not be allowed to work. Anyone in a public position, or who can be dragged into public, is especially vulnerable.

    The thing is neither colleague was or is racist. They were mocking goofy advertising characters of the day. One went on not long after that photo was taken to protect the human rights of a group being treated unfairly by the U.S. government. He risked his career to speak out, and made actual change happen in an organization resistant to it. The other colleague has done the right thing in a lot of difficult situations. The State Department is a better place for them working in it. I doubt either remember the Halloween photo, or realize how thin the ice is underneath them in 2021.

    But splashing the photo on some front page would accomplish nothing that matters, certainly nothing the self-righteous babble that would have to accompany it would claim. You know it by heart. Secretary of State Blinken would ritually say “We have reassigned diplomats X and Y pending their voluntary retirements. We have zero tolerance for racism no matter when or where it takes place. This is not who we are. Their actions fly in the face of the Department’s public denouncements of racism and sexism and its promises to be more inclusive amid criticism for its past treatment of black and Hispanic employees.”

    To be fair, the words I just put into Blinken’s mouth are not fully original. I stole them from statements the NFL made recently around the firing of Raider’s coach Jon Gruden. Emails recently surfaced, some 10 years old, where Gruden used language likely heard in any NFL locker room today. In fact, language used most places, albeit not by a white man. So in stories about Gruden we see p*ssy while on another page we read about a Pink Pussy Hat march. Never mind the so-called n-word which means burn the street down if a white person says it but is a term of endearment in a hip hop song. I guess Gruden was supposed to have thought about all this years ago when he wrote his emails. Same as my diplomatic colleagues should have thought twice three decades ago when they chose their Halloween outfits. In today’s logic, that “mistake” means Gruden is unfit to coach and my colleague is unfit to sit in an ambassador’s chair. The thing is no one accused Gruden of being a racist, or favoring players of one race over another. And I can comfortably swear in court I never knew either of my colleagues to make a racially-oriented decision.

    The people who believe they are fighting racism in this way spend their days digging through old yearbooks, watching hours of video, trolling emails and social media, and receiving hacked fodder from someone’s political enemy. The result is teachers, sportscasters, cops, and whoever else being run out of their career not for being a racist but for just using words some don’t like. These are not crimes of action. They are thought crimes, tied to a specific political theology.

    One of the latest thought criminals is Dave Chappelle. Chappelle, a black comedian, is under attack for jokes in a Netflix special “the community” considers transphobic. Netflix black and trans employees have expressed their concerns to upper management. Employees took to Twitter. People called for a boycott if Chappelle wasn’t punished somehow someway.

    I watched his show, The Closer. Yep, he sure said some things about trans people. Maybe the things were funny, maybe not. Maybe they would sound hurtful to some people, maybe not. But left unsaid in the trans-fuss was almost all of Chappelle’s show was about his dislike of white people. He actually explained that most of his jokes about trans people are actually jokes about how he hates white people. One story was about how he almost got into a fight with a transman and how the transman called 911. Chappelle as a punchline said something like “Dude was trans only until you need to be white to call the cops on a [n-word]” He went on to explain how he finds white fans who recognize him in public a bother while welcoming black interactions, made remarks like it was 1950 about “white bitches,” and so forth.

    We’re all well past noting the hypocrisy that racism in 2021 can only occur from a white person to a POC and never the other way. This Halloween, I bet anyone can go to a party dressed as A White Couple, with whiteface makeup, Bermuda shorts, a pink polo shirt or whatever racist clichés carry the message (someone actually sells such costumes as a joke/not joke) and no one would raise an eyebrow. But if you do dress that way, be careful. Someone may take a photo that could sink your career 20 years from now.

    Related Articles:




    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Democracy, Embassy/State