Trick-or-Treating While White: White Supremacy and Costumes of Racial Tragedy
by David Leonard and Lisa Guerrero | NewBlackMan (in Exile)
By now, you likely have seen the vile and reprehensible “Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman” Halloween costume. It trafficks in racism, finding pleasure in Black Death. It reflects a broader ideology as it relates to lack of empathy for Black life and so much more. It is also a commentary of the genuine callousness of people. Like racism, this is nothing new. It does, however, follow a new trend – Trayvoning meme, business profiting off selling Trayvon shooting targets, Trayvon video games and racist Halloween costumes from the U.S. to Australia – that highlights the intransigence of anti-black racism.
The disregard for Black life, and the disparagement of Black death is not a recent development; the pleasure and joy garnered from Black suffering and dreams deferred has been central to the systems, institutions, and ideologies of White supremacy throughout United States history. Evident in minstrel shows, the history of lynching, and jokes about racial profiling or the war on drugs, whites have always found joy in the violence experienced by African Americans.
The history of American public discourse on equality and freedom is one marred with both the erasure of Black suffering, and efforts to find happiness and pleasure in the suffering of the OTHER. We saw this during Hurricane Katrina where the sight of African Americans wading through water in search of food or medicine, or stranded families clinging to life on roof tops elicited reactions of shock and horror as well as pleasure and joy at the knowledge that could never happen to White America. Dylan Rodriguez
describes Katrina as a “scene of white popular enjoyment, wherein the purging/drowning of black people provided an opportunity for white Americana to revel in its entitlement to remain relatively indifferent to this nearby theater of breathtaking devastation.” More recently we saw it with the racial mocking of those facing the prospect of loss of SNAP benefits.
Such joy isn’t simply an outgrowth of the denied humanity of Black people or the refusal to witness and see Black pain, but it is also a celebration of, or at least the elevation of, White humanity, White power, and the protective armor that whiteness provides each and every day. This is the story of race in America, from lynchings to Katrina, from slavery to Trayvon Martin.
But the examples of racialized disregard that have surrounded Trayvon Martin’s death, most recently exemplified in the commodification, “meme-ification,” and “costume-ification” of the tragedy by various White people marks a startling new mechanization of racism wherein there has been a complete evacuation of humanity…on both sides. The dehumanization of people of color and other marginalized groups is, sadly, no longer surprising, but that dominant groups so readily diminish their humanity through the willful participation in acts of oppression like donning a blackface costume of Trayvon, and enacting violence against his “body” only highlights the ways in which “humanity” has no commodity value in American society in the 21st century. In these moments, Trayvon’s humanity becomes increasingly and insidiously taken over by consumption and performance, while white humanity is used as mere currency in this racist transaction.
The joy historically, as well as contemporaneously, taken by many Whites in the violence against and suffering of African Americans has become nearly indistinguishable from the joy of consuming. The consumer market has overtaken all facets of social interaction, the good, the bad, and the very bad. We are witnessing a descent into a “society of the spectacle” that perhaps Guy DeBord himself could scarcely imagine. The spectacularizing of racialized events and tragedies within the 21st century, while still largely constructed through sociocultural lenses of White supremacy, racialized inferiority, and histories of racial injustices and violences, allows for their translation to be conveniently dislocated from these racial phenomena and displaced onto the assumed “neutral” projects of commodity and consumption. As DeBord stated regarding the nature of the society of the spectacle, “The spectacle cannot be understood as an abuse of the world of vision, as a product of the techniques of mass dissemination of images…It is a world vision which has become objectified.”
Writing about the practice of whites collecting body parts as souvenirs during lynchings, Harvey Young, in “The Black Body as Souvenir in American Lynching
,” highlights the spectacle of white-on-black violence and the pleasure derived from Black suffering and death. He describes the lynching of Sam Hose in 1899, where, “the assembled crowd descended upon his body and collected various parts of it as souvenirs.” Seeking to explain the unexplainable, to provide meaning to the unthinkable, Young identifies this history in the following way: “lynched black body in the aftermath of the lynching event and variously read it in terms of the souvenir, the fetish, and the performance remain.” He argues, “that the lynching keepsake not only can be defined by, but also can exceed, each of these three terms. Containing within itself the various features of the souvenir, the fetish, and the remain, the body part recalls and remembers the performance of which it is a part. It not only gestures toward the beliefs that motivated its theft, but also renders visible the body from which it was taken.”
The sight of a white male, in Blackface, donning a bloody hoody, alongside of a “neighborhood watch” costume, is part of the history. As with those who enact lynchings at Halloween parties, who minstrelized the Jena 6, and who otherwise mock and find pleasure in Black pain, this costume is about more than “fun” – it’s about violence.
In this historical example we see the explicit rendering of White supremacy. The White supremacy and racism of the act, purposefully done as the dual act of White superiority and Black inferiority, as well as of the racist and violent talisman provided by the souvenir, was never obfuscated. It was seen as a right. It was claimed. In the new millennium, American society is heavily invested in the belief in its own racial progress, while remaining heavily mired in colorblind racism and reimagined racial violences. Its rampant consumer society, fortified incalculably by new media, makes the claims to White supremacy, (for all but the most extreme), almost completely deniable. The claims become subsumed beneath the “logic” of the spectacle wherein “the spectacle aims at nothing other than itself.” (DeBord) This is the sociocultural state in which “Trayvoning/Trayvon Costumes” exists, the state of the self-referential spectacle.
While his murder, his death, and the circumstances that surround the injustice are understood as a site of White ritual and pleasure, a space of White pleasure resulting from Black pain, they are not transparently claimed (by and large) as such. While the trend can be interpreted as a new technology of lynching, its character remains separate from lynchings of the past whose act, and the dissemination of lynching photographs highlighted White power and White supremacy. The ability to “act” like a dead Trayvon Martin only to get up and head back into White suburbia is illustrative of this same feeling of power and privilege, but invisibly so. White people don’t don racist costumes to “declare” White supremacy; they take part in it because the declaration has been rendered unnecessary by various sociocultural, sociopolitical, and socioeconomic forces. In fact, the absence of the explicit claims to it emphasizes the power and privilege even more.
Whether the Trayvon costume or those enacting Klan-lynchings, this modern day minstrelsy reflects an unstated joy at the lack of possibility of getting suspected as a criminal for merely walking to a convenience store; it reflects an unacknowledged level of pleasure in knowing that being stopped for walking while White is less likely than Ted Cruz compromising; it reflects the incongruity between whiteness and enslavement, between lynchings and a white existence; it reflects a flaunting of the power and privilege that grants Whiteness protection from armed security guards, an unwilling/reluctant criminal justice system, and a media culture more concerned with convicted Trayvon Martin than George Zimmerman. The ability to stand up and walk away after the photo indicates the power of whiteness.
These costumes are thus akin to a history of racial cross-dressing and minstrelsy, practices that, according to Eric Lott
, embodied white desire “to try on the accents of ‘blackness’ and demonstrates the permeability of the color line.” He writes that blackface “facilitate[s] safely an exchange of energies between two otherwise rigidly bounded and policed cultures.” The ability to imagine and embody Trayvon in death is a source of pleasure because it not only provides whites with the opportunity to “try on” and “control” blackness but to reassert their whiteness. Whereas Trayvon is dead, whiteness lives on.
Can you imagine someone dressed as Adam Lanza or James Holmes alongside of one of their victims? What about the Boston bombers alongside of costumes of men and women who lost their legs? The thought of 9/11 and Halloween is unthinkable because of the impossibility of mocking White suffering, White pain, and the right of White mourning. It is here where we can see the pleasure derived from White supremacy, the joy garnered from Black Death and suffering, and the comfort in trafficking in dehumanizing narratives and images. These insensitive costumes, as well as the privileged lack of empathy in which they are donned, is symptomatic of the insidious violences of white supremacy that can be reimagined and reinflicted at the will, whim, and entertainment of white people…that is the real “trick” in this season of “trick or treat.”
Lisa A. Guerrero
is Associate Professor of Comparative Ethnic Studies at Washington State University Pullman. She is the editor of Teaching Race in the 21st Century: College Professors Talk About Their Fears, Risks, and Rewards
(Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) and co-editor of African Americans on Television: Race-ing for Ratings
(Praeger Press) with David J. Leonard.
David J. Leonard
is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. Leonard’s latest books include After Artest: Race and the Assault on Blackness
(SUNY Press) and African Americans on Television: Race-ing for Ratings
(Praeger Press) co-edited with Lisa Guerrero
. He is currently working on a book Presumed Innocence: White Mass Shooters in the Era of Trayvon
about gun violence in America.