Commentary: Black Suffering Is Not a Costume

With the Trayvon Martin Blackface incident, we’re reminded that some Americans think agony in the Black community is just another joke.

Lately when it comes to race, America’s been pulling more tricks than treats.

Many of us still struggle to wrap our heads around the murder of Trayvon Martin, the acquittal of George Zimmerman and the fight for justice for Marissa Alexander. And now a recent Halloween costume has gone viral of a Florida man dressing up as (a dead) Trayvon Martin and another as (an alive) George Zimmerman, and it signals something about the white smiles that continue at the sake of black agony.

News flash: Black suffering is not a costume, nor is it funny.

Take a long hard look at the picture.

Uploaded to Facebook by Caitlin Cimeno, a picture depicting Greg Cimeno as George Zimmerman donning a “Neighborhood Watch” T-shirt and William Filene, in Blackface, dressed up as Martin, with a bloody hoodie, made its disturbing public appearance.

Around every corner we’re inundated with white people who swear they meant no harm or say they’re in the fight for justice. Simultaneously we’re struck by continued egregious racism like this costume, or more historically situated though no less insidious racism, like Julianne Hough in a Blackface costume as Crazy Eyes from Orange Is the New Black.

How should white people respond when Black death and suffering is made a punch line and parody? Black feminist social theorist bell hooks, in writing about white students, offers some clues. For hooks, “the absence of recognition is a strategy that facilitates making a group the Other.” There seems to be no awareness that choosing to dress in Blackface is in awful taste.

There’s little irony that the KKK gallivanted in white masks. Halloween, like hoods to mask identities, gives some people the perception of a pass, an excuse, the ability to misrecognize their own racism (among other things) as just a joke. hooks also mentions that white astonishment that Black people track the actions of white people is itself an expression of racism. If you’re reading this and asking “What’s the fuss?,” that might be a sign of your own racism. Cries like “lighten up” or “can’t you take a joke” or “it’s just Halloween” are also part of the long history of U.S. racism that has made black suffering a punch line on Halloween night and every other night in between.

At best, some of society is unwilling to allow a young man murdered to rest in peace and, at worst, there’s something celebratory of Black agony that warrants a costume. Such repeated performances speak to not only just how alive and well racism is in American culture, but just how difficult it is to live — and die — in such a society that either wants you dead or thinks your death is a joke.

What privilege it must be to misrecognize a trick for a treat.

Monica R. Miller, Ph.D. is the author of Religion and Hip Hop and teaches courses on religion in contemporary culture. Miller is an Assistant Professor of Religion and Africana Studies at Lehigh University and member of the Culture on the Edge international scholarly collective. 

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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(Photo: Twitter via Jamie Vanderkamp)

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