Halloween and Free Speech

November 3, 2011

Political Theory


Obviously this is a little delayed, but every year on halloween notions of free speech are constantly re-hashed. Year after year, people’s costumes intended to entertain and satirically poke fun at various socio-political issues push the boundaries of the freedoms this country supposedly have.

Rewind a few years now for a minute. It’s my senior year of high school, the last halloween I am going to spend with the kids I grew up with all my life. We have our licenses, and are beyond excited to go into school that day in our funny costumes. On this particular day, we decide to carpool to school, and grab some breakfast on the way. Me as the driver, dressed like a character from one of my favorite television shows thought I had pushed the boundary of acceptable costumes. Then I picked up my friend Dean….

Dean was dressed as Aunt Jemima. My friends and I had burst into tears. I never laughed so loudly in my life! Every year it was tradition my friend Dean would dress up as a woman. In previous years he had almost done it all; from Barbie, to Pochahontus, he was the master of dressing in drag on Halloween. However, there was something about this costume that just didn’t seem right. And that is what we were unaware of. And that is what got Dean suspended from school that day.

Many seniors in highschool, including myself (guilty as charged) did not sign into school that day, and instead paraded around in our costumes. Some students (including Dean) even disrupted class to perform little skits to get a rise out of the underclassman. I guess in retrospect this is what got Dean in trouble as well. (Hindsight really is 20-20) Dean had painted himself in black face and walked into several classrooms that day (including my first period English class. The only class I attended that day) asking students “Who wants pancakes? Aunt Jemima’s got the good stuff” with a wonderful southern droll.

Shortly after Dean was sent to the Principal’s office for his costume. He was either asked to remove the entire costume including the blackface, or leave school. Dean was furious! He had dressed in drag every single year and pushed the boundaries of free expression every single Halloween. Especially because this was the last Halloween our entire graduating class would be together for, Dean refused to take off the costume and chose to get suspended from school. He believed the school was violating his rights of free speech and expression.

What my friends including Dean and I did not realize that day was that Dean was suspended due to him painting himself in blackface. We were completely unaware of the connotations associated with the act of painting oneself in blackface. We were completely under the impression that the school just had no sense of Humor. Dean’s story has made headlines all over New York State.

To this day, the articles are on his refrigerator. We all since then have realized the negative connotations associated with the notions of blackface. However, we also realized how much the times have changed and the significance has severely altered. And this is where I leave you, the readers to decide. How are Dean’s actions wrong when we have come a long way since the ages of African American Caricatures? Were his rights and liberties stripped away from him that day? Did those in power have a right to suspend him from school that day?

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8 Comments on “Halloween and Free Speech”

  1. goldman13 Says:

    What are the “connotations associated with the act of painting oneself in blackface”?

  2. brianfrankel Says:

    I think this is a very complicated issue. To begin with, I do not think anyone should be allowed to wear “blackface” in a public setting. There are far too many individuals, with differing values and ideas, who could easily be offended and even made feel insecure by such action. On the other hand, when the motives are aligned properly, I am not sure how I feel about “blackface” in a private setting, such as a friend’s party. Personally, I would never do it.

    Last week, this controversy presented itself in the sports world. “The controversy started when Torres’ teammate, Paul Bissonette, tweeted out a picture of Torres and his wife Gianna at a Halloween party. They were dressed as the rap star Jay-Z and singer Beyonce Knowles. The problem is they wore blackface makeup, which Tilman says is offensive to African-Americans. Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke said in his column that blackface is “a degrading form of makeup used to parody African-Americans.”
    The Coyotes sent KTAR this statement supporting Torres and his wife:
    “There was absolutely nothing racist about Raffi or his wife’s costumes. Raffi is a huge fan of Jay Z and his wife loves Beyonce. It was a Halloween party. The fact that this was reported is ridiculous.”
    Tilman disagrees:
    “I’m very disappointed,” says Tilman. “For them to come back and say this is no big deal….you tell them to walk back 40, 50, 60 years and come through what I’ve been through and seen what this blackface has done. Then we’ll see how big a deal it was.”

    It is impossible to tell someone else how to react or respond to something that, deep down, he/she feels violates their beliefs.

  3. brianfrankel Says:

    If anyone would like to read the entire article, it is http://ktar.com/6/1466710/Costume-sparks-NAACP-criticism

  4. jonkeren Says:

    I personally do not believe that your friend Dean should have been suspended from school. Although the “black face” has negative connotations your friend clearly had no intentions of insulting anyone. However, if your friend came to school in a KKK outfit, that would be a completely different story. The fact of the matter is our country is becoming too politically correct and as a result it is restricting our rights that were promised to us in the Constitution. Dean was merely expressing himself and had the absolute right to dress the way he did. His first amendment rights were violated and should not have been dismissed from school.

  5. serena Says:

    Dean’s costume idea is hilarious to me and original, but I’m only a college kid. To others, who don’t simply see it as an innocent costume idea, it is high offensive to wear ‘blackface’. The school reacted the way they saw fit, but they turned his costume into something that your friend did not mean in any way. Personally, I believe suspending him was unnecessary. Dean’s rights and liberties were stripped away but I think your school’s administration did not mean to do so, they just wanted to be ‘politically correct’ and show people that they do not condone people negatively depicting other races and cultures. If the costume was obviously Aunt Jemima and it did not stir bad feelings with other students, then I see no problem with it. Agreeing with a previous comment, I do feel our society sometimes walks on eggshells in an attempt to be politically correct all of the time.

  6. madisonkraus Says:

    I do agree with previous posts in that I’m sure Dean had no intentions of offending anyone with his costume. You mentioned that he always cross-dresses and tried to push the limits so I’m sure the Aunt Jemimah idea seemed like a funny costume, and was not motivated my malicious intent. That being said, I do feel like high school seniors should know the connotations of black face. Historically, black face was a way to mock and demean African Americans for comedic purposes, and I don’t think that that is a little known fact. Even if he wasn’t aiming to offend, he must’ve had some doubt about it being a good idea to paint his face black and go to school. Because of this, I do think it was reasonable of the school to have Dean change out of his costume. If they believed Dean chose the costume to make a statement or to be offensive, it makes sense that they suspended him. However, I think that they could have had a talk with the student and explained to him why he should not have used black face, and have him change. I agree that since it was clear he was just trying to be funny, and wasn’t trying to make anyone feel uncomfortable I don’t think this should have turned into a huge issue.

  7. riommack Says:

    This topic recently came up in my Arab American studies class as well. Halloween costumes seem to be not only just a huge debate, but a debate of many topics. While I believe Halloween is a day/night/week of expression, there are lines that need to be drawn. Some people don’t get too into Halloween, but others go all out — showing off their clever, goofy, and creative sides. But there is a difference between dressing up as a telletubby and dressing up as a Arab suicide bomber with a turban, mustache, the works. Halloween is not a time to succumb to stereotyping, whether it be in a playful manner or not. Similarly, it is not okay for someone to paint their face black, put on gold chains and baggy clothes, and call themselves a “gangsta” for halloween. These costumes are associating race with a certain image, that while may fit some people, does not fit all. While I strongly believe that Halloween should not be a night of stereotyping races, I still am unsure of where i stand on the issue of if someone was to dress up a SPECIFIC person of that race. Does it make it okay?

  8. ldahbour Says:

    How are Dean’s actions wrong when we have come a long way since the ages of African American Caricatures? Were his rights and liberties stripped away from him that day? Did those in power have a right to suspend him from school that day?

    I don’t really understand what you mean by the ‘negative connotations of blackface’. I researched more on the actual incident that your friend encountered and found an article here: http://articles.nydailynews.com/2009-11-01/news/29436584_1_aunt-jemima-blackface-naacp-official. I am going to assume that the connotations you are referring to are the ‘connotations of subservience to whites’–as the article puts it. To answer your first question, it may be that the manner by which Dean conducted himself as he was in costume angered the school officials. Dean brought attention to himself by interrupting classrooms and adding vernacular to Aunt Jemima. With this, there could be inferred intentions that are meaningless to Dean. So, maybe if Dean was a little less vocal with his costume there might’ve been more tolerance on behalf of the rest of the school. As far as your second question is concerned–I guess it depends on whether his expression could have triggered some sort of harm as a result of his actions. The article says that Dean is not known to be a true advocate of racism, so I feel that there shouldnt’ve been any halt to his actions. Since they decided to suspend him before any harm was created then I would have to agree that Dean’s freedom of expression was stripped from him that day. As a consequence, those in power did not have a right to suspend him from school.

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