What? That’s not racist!

Here’s the story – a male cop in St. Paul, Minnesota decided it would be funny and clever to dress up as a female Somali Target employee for a private Halloween party that he attended last year. He wore a hijab, tucked a cell phone next to his face underneath the hijab, and pinned a Target nametag bearing a common Somali name to the front of his clothes. Someone took a photo of him in his costume and that photo was posted to Twitter. Now the backlash is starting to catch up to him.

The woman that he turned into a costume – I know her. In the South Minneapolis neighborhood where I live and shop, I have walked by her on the street, smiled at her, shared a bus seat with her, and have done business with her. For some reason, this man thought she was something to be mocked – a stereotype that he could wear, a joke.

His apology, as quoted by the Star Tribune, is a mockery of apologies – a prime example of the Not-Pology (i.e. – he’s very sorry if you were offended). Actually, I think the Star Trib captured it perfectly in the title of their article: “St. Paul officer in hijab apologizes for photo.” There is no doubt in my mind that he is quite sorry about the photo.

In addition to this story, I want to talk about the discussion that was had about this story that took place among me and some acquaintances. Someone was reading the paper and mentioned it. A few people sighed, shook their heads, said something to the effect of “That’s not right.” And then somebody said this:

“But you know…some people will get offended by anything.”

A few others chimed in with their agreement and it was ON. Here are some of the things that were said during that discussion:

“I don’t get why people are upset. It was just a joke.”

“He wasn’t trying to be offensive.”

“But…it’s Halloween! And really, his costume wasn’t that much different than the stuff they sell in Halloween stores. Nobody says those costumes are racist.”

“We’ll just have to disagree.”

You all are a pretty savvy bunch when it comes to issues of racism and privilege. I’ve learned a lot from the blogs and commentary that I read, and apparently all that internet-learning has paid off; I was pleasantly suprised to find myself holding up a pretty cogent argument for why the cop was in the wrong and why it was wrong to try to shame the people who were offended by his actions.

Let me step back and share something with you: It’s taken me a long time for me to begin to grasp the complexities of race, class, gender, sex and ableist privilege. Hell, to grasp the idea of privilege at all. And I’ve still got a ways to go. I’ve had some deeply uncomfortable moments when being confronted with these issues. It seems strange to have to go through so much internal struggle and self-questioning to come to this understanding:

“Oh! I get it! What I’m doing is offensive because you’ve told me that I’m being offensive. I should stop being offensive.”

But really – it’s that simple.

We can learn a lot by letting our discomfort be the starting point for conversations. Although, as was recently pointed out to me, the person who has been offended might not feel like having a conversation about the offense-causing behavior, in which case it becomes the our job to do the research and find out how and why we screwed up, and to try to not do it again.

Back to the conversation about the cop’s Halloween’s costume. Someone said this: “Anybody can be offended by anything, then! I don’t like your pink scarf. Pink offends me!”

O rly?

That argument is a distraction. First of all – you’re not offended by me wearing pink. Stop being an ass. And in my experience, people really aren’t offended “by anything” – they’re usually offended for a reason. When we say “some people are offended by anything”, we’re trivializing the worth of their complaint. It’s not right to dismiss someone’s pain or anger just because you can’t understand why they’re offended.

One surprising thing that seems to happen as I learn more about privilege is that complex topics sometimes get a lot simpler. For example, let’s revist the rest of those comments from the discussion:

“I don’t get it. It was just a joke.”

It’s not a joke to the Somali community that the cop was mocking.

“He wasn’t trying to be offensive.”

Doesn’t matter – he was.

“But…it’s Halloween! And really, his costume wasn’t that much different than the stuff they sell in Halloween stores. Nobody says those costumes are racist.”

Yes they do. Lots of people say that (too bad hyperlinks don’t work in r/l conversations).

“We’ll just have to disagree.”

OK. You’re still in the wrong. Also, it’s kind of shitty to play the “agree to disagree” card when we’re talking about whether or not we should treat our fellow human beings with respect.

Here’s another thought – take a look at the situation in which the offense happened. If some random man had dressed up like a Somali woman for a costume party, that would make him a jerk of one stripe or another. But this story is getting attention in part because the man is law enforcement officer who is entrusted with serving all of the citizens in his area. How can the Somali community trust him to serve them equally and fairly when his actions have shown that he thinks they’re a joke?

No really…how?

Well first, he could offer a sincere apology and acknowledge that his costume was unacceptable and bigoted. He could say “I was wrong. I apologize to the people who I offended. I will do and be better going forward.”

That would be an excellent start.

What? That’s not racist!
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247 thoughts on “What? That’s not racist!

  1. 1

    From the linked article: ” Police spokesman Howie Padilla said that the internal affairs investigation into the photo is ongoing and that Buth remains assigned to the department’s K-9 unit.”

    Sounds like he’s been demoted to German Shepherd.

  2. 2

    “Oh! I get it! What I’m doing is offensive because you’ve told me that I’m being offensive. I should stop being offensive.”

    Might I suggest that this might not be what you meant? Criticizing (and mocking) religion is clearly highly offensive to some, but do you care if they tell you you’re being offensive when you criticize them? Should most of the authors on FTB apologize and stop criticizing religion because someone finds them offensive?
    Racial and non-European national minorities, women and LBGT, as historic whipping boys for the old white christian majority in the US, are really the only ones that can get away with using that statement quoted above. Otherwise all mockery and dissent is squashed, and we can’t have that!
    I don’t use the n word, c word or f word because, well, members of those groups say they’re offensive and I understand the context of that offense. Same with most racially pejorative words and phrases, but those three are pretty much absolute.

    1. 2.1

      While I wasn’t exactly digging your angle here, I was technically with you on the distinction (which I think was covered by the context of the post, BTW) right up until the only ones that can get away with.

      Seriously. Come on, now.

    2. 2.2

      I have to agree. Offense is taken, not given.

      I’m not saying that what the cop did was OK. If it was a joke, it was in very bad taste. It was disrespectful. It was also targeted at a specific person, which could well be construed as harassment. Maybe he even wanted people to take offense. And as a cop, he should perhaps be held to a higher standard than the average schmuck. But again, offense is taken, not given.

      I find that “being offensive” is very much like blasphemy. There’s no clear definition of what it is. It varies from place to place, from culture to culture, from time to time. And when the wronged party is powerful, it leads to censorship and prison. And even death penalties.

      I don’t give offense, but some people might well be offended by my actions and statements. It is unavoidable. It is just a question of whether I care about the wronged party or not. If my friends are offended, then I apologize to them. Because I care about my friends. But when religious people are offended by my admittedly tasteless jokes about pedophile priests, I really don’t give a shit. It’s their problem, not mine.

      Because offense is taken, not given.

      1. Because offense is taken, not given.

        Nope, it’s both.

        Offensiveness is determined by both the giver and the receiver. The giver by his or her actions; the receiver by his or her reception. Motivation on the part of the giver matters, but it’s not exculpatory– just as you can physically harm someone on accident, you can offend someone on accident and you’re still responsible for it.

        Does every instance of someone being offended mean that the offender should regret his or her actions? No, of course not. Not every case in which someone is offended has something hurtful actually been done to him/her. Criticism of beliefs is often offensive (as you point out with blasphemy), but it is not harmful. Bigoted statements and behavior also offend, and are harmful. When you act and speak harmfully and it is pointed out to you, you should recognize the harm, apologize for it, and learn from it so that you don’t do similar things again.

        Yes, it’s true that the simple fact of someone taking offense does not mean that the offender should be sorry. It’s also true that offense can be taken for very good reason, and therefore the offender should regret what he/she did.

        And no, it’s really not difficult to discern which is which.

        1. P.S.

          It is just a question of whether I care about the wronged party or not.

          I seriously doubt that you only avoid being racist (for example) around your friends because you care about your friends. And if you do, you have a gravely mistaken concept of what’s wrong about racism.

        2. Actually, it is often difficult to discern which is which. That’s why not recognising your own privileges is a problem. Until you do it’s pretty much impossible to discern which is which. And unless you’re pretty damn sure that you’ve recognised all of yours then it’s still not necessarily easy to know which is which in every case.

          “Criticism of beliefs is often offensive (as you point out with blasphemy), but it is not harmful” but criticism of beliefs can be harmful, because even if that’s all you’re doing then it can help a bigot justify his own beliefs which go far beyond your criticism of the belief into hatred of the person who holds the belief and something that really is harmful.

          I will tend to err on the side of beliefs being open to criticism or mockery, but to claim that this is always a black and white issue where you can easily identify which side you’re on is a bit simplistic.

          An argument against a specific tenet of Islam, for example, can carry very different capacity for both offense and actual harm if your audience is a group of Muslims, a group of sceptics or a group of neo-Nazis.

  3. 3

    Here’s something else I thought of. We apologize when we do something wrong. When you apologize that someone felt offended, you’re implying they were wrong to have those feelings. Besides that, you’re appropriating their feelings as if you get to make decisions about them. It’s not just a not-pology, it’s offensive.

    1. 3.1

      I don’t agree. You can apologize for an outcome, without apologizing for what led to that outcome, because the outcome was not foreseeable.

      Take the following example. Your friend brokeup with someone some time age, long enough for you to consider he is over it. You meet his former partner somehow and the two of you really get along. But when you mention this to your friend, the reaction tells you, he is hurt.

      Is it wrong for him to be hurt, I don’t think so. Was it wrong of you to start off with his former partner, I don’t think so either. But you may be sorry for the effect it has on your friend. So how do you appologize for that without people reacting that it is a non-pology.

  4. 4

    Aside from the racial implications (not trying to dismiss them, just pointing out another aspect) isn’t it also offensive that his ‘costume’ was that of an individual (and a local, non-celebrity at that).

    It would seem to me that there would be very few (any?) acceptable defenses for mocking an individual (which is what this sounds like), and this is only compounded when the person doing the mocking is a public official.

    Also, isn’t it obvious that wearing clothing/accessories that are associated with certain ethnicities, as a ‘costume’ is in itself a fairly racist action?

    As to the offending the religious bit, I dunno… I guess that’s also like conservatives and liberals offending each other, or something. It’s not just atheists offending the religious, all kinds of religious folk are constantly offending all kinds of other religious folk, some religious folk are offending atheist folk, etc.. It’s pretty much an insult and offend party all around.

  5. 5

    Being offensive isn’t bad. We shouldn’t fear giving offense. But we ought to only be offensive when the object is to improve the world. If we’re being offensive to hurt people, as this cop was, that’s wrong. It’s not wrong because it’s offensive, it’s wrong because the intent and outcome were to hurt fellow humans. When our words and actions leave another worse off than we found them, we ought to apologize even if it wasn’t our intent. It’s called being a decent person.

  6. 6

    Although the officer’s actions were very inappropriate and unacceptable, I cannot agree with the writer about the notion that we should stop the “offending” act just because someone says that they are offended by it. I think the issue of offending somebody is more complicated than that. Although I can understand what you are trying to say with the pink scarf example and that people don’t get offended “by anything” but rather for a reason, I don’t think that the pink scarf argument is a distraction. I think it’s a valid argument in the sense that whatever you say/do might very well offend somebody somewhere, at least on some issues. For example, if you say “I like gay people”, there will be some religious people who will get offended. If you say “I do not like gay people”, there will be some homosexuals who will get offended. If you say “I don’t have an opinion about homosexuality”, there will be some people on both sides who will get offended because you don’t care about the issue. So who should you be apologizing to in this case?

    Furthermore, if determining whether something is offensive or not can be decided only by those who say that they are offended, then there will definitely be people who would claim being offended to silence critics. For example, it happens very often that Muslims in mass get “offended” when you point to the fact that their prophet married, and consummated the marriage, with a 9 years old when he was over 50. Should pointing to that fact really be considered an offence just because they claim that it is? After all, it is a fact that results in the existence of many child brides today. Should you apologize for this offence then or would you say “I’m not offending you, I’m just pointing to a fact documented in your books!”?

    1. 6.1

      No, Muslims get offended when people make stuff up about their religion, culture, or history, and then claim it to be a “fact.” And look at where the most touchy ones tend to live: places where either they are a second class minority, or where they are subject to some pretty harsh foreign policy measures (i.e. Yemen, where the US regularly does drone strikes). It’s much easier to get offended when you are treated as subhuman and then someone comes out and implies it is so with their supposed “facts.”

      Perhaps to illustrate: I would not be offended if you said, “I do not like gay people.” I WOULD be offended if you said, “It’s a fact that gay people are pedophiles” or “It’s a fact that gay people are violent and murderous.” See the difference? And the scaring thing is, both statements have been made about gay people AND Muslims. Go figure.

  7. 7

    I would say there is definitely a difference between avoiding being insensitive to a demographic and saying stuff that just might offend somebody’s “sensibilities”.

    I dressed up as a shark for halloween the year before last. It was pretty realistic looking from the neck up at certain angles, and I ran around offering “chum” to people out of a giant bucket (which was filled with cookies). But it was HALLOWEEN and I was a SHARK. Noone is being made fun of (save sharks, and I doubt they could care less what I think) – there’s no shark culture (or “pink scarf” culture) that I’m bashing on. If there WAS, and “Joe the Sharkbaby” who was born into a culture where everybody has pointy teeth and fins and a hunger for baby seals (or had a pink scarf growing out of his elbow or something if you prefer that analogy) complained about me mocking a stereotype, I’d apologize and say “whoops that was insensitive of me” or “I had no idea, I’m sorry”.

    There’s also the “the earth is flat” vs “women are stupid and those bitches need to stay in the kitchen”. Both are dumb ideas, and the first one might offend somebody who just hates bad ideas or flat earthers – that’s really on them. The second is pushing a bad stereotype and denigrating a good percentage of the population. Both might, to the person saying it, seem like a simple statement of fact – but the second is clearly an attack and the speaker would really want to watch their audience to avoid offence (particularly if they were a public figure).

    And if they really can’t see the difference between those scenarios, then they… are probably SOL.

  8. 8

    This is easy to understand. Do not go as a Mexican, a Native American, a Gypsy, Somali etc. as a Halloween costume. It is like going in black face. People are not costumes. Race is not a costume.

    That said, in my less enlightened days, I did this very thing. Racism can be hard to recognize when you are soaking in it. It saturates and pollutes everything. The first step to getting free from it, is learning to see it.

  9. 9

    The Somali community in Minnesota is by and large refugees, and many of them have some serious horror stories about how they came to the US. I don’t know this woman’s story in particular. But, imagine being forced to flee for your life from your home, only to be stopped and mugged (or kidnapped and held for ransom) on the Kenyan border by the police, then to come to a country with a completely different language and culture, still do your best to fit in and be productive, only to get mocked by some imbicile who couldn’t possibly understand the surreal terror of a war-torn country, or the sadness at realizing that you probably will never be able to return home. Then it becomes pretty obvious why Somalis would be offended by this behavior. I’m not Somali, I’ve only known a few. But even I’m offended.

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