I’m holding a 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.
He’s 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.
Looking at the photo now, I realize it is a weapon. By now, it’s a familiar playbook, an old photo litigated in the media under the harsh light of 2021. The outcome is always predictable because 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, should not be allowed to work.
Both of my colleagues managed their careers much better than I did and are now in senior positions. Neither was or is racist. One of them 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. 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 one remembers the Halloween photo, or realizes just how thin the ice is underneath them.
Splashing the photo on some front page would accomplish nothing that matters, certainly nothing that the self-righteous babble that would 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. This is not who we are. Their actions fly in the face of the Department’s public denouncements of racism 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 recently made amid the firing of Las Vegas Raiders coach Jon Gruden. Emails recently surfaced, some 10 years old, in which Gruden privately used language that would likely be heard in any NFL locker room today. In fact, language used in most places, albeit not by white men. In stories about Gruden we see the word “p*ssy,” while on another page we read about a Pink Pussy Hat march.
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 that no one even accused Gruden of being a racist, or favoring players of one race over another. 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 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, and cops being run out of their careers not for being a racist but for using words some don’t like them using. These are not crimes of action. They are thoughtcrimes.
One of the latest thought criminals is Dave Chappelle. Chappelle is under attack for jokes he made in a Netflix special that “the community” considers transphobic. Netflix employees expressed their concerns to upper management. Many took to Twitter. People called for a boycott if Chappelle wasn’t punished somehow someway.
I watched his show, The Closer. Yep, he said some things about transpeople. 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 that almost all of Chappelle’s show was about his dislike for white people. He actually explained that most of his jokes about transpeople are actually jokes about how he doesn’t like white people.
One story was about how he almost got into a fight with a transman until the transman called 911. Chappelle as a punchline said something like “Dude was trans only until he needed to be white to call the cops on a [n-word].” He went on to explain how he finds white fans a bother while welcoming black interactions, made remarks 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 around. 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 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. Because you never know how the culture will turn. Someone may take a photo that could sink your career 30 years from now.