Despite a media storm following the recent controversy involving a St. Paul police officer (see here and here for reference), there’s still a lot of nuance around why this behavior is offensive, why it matters, and where we go from here. The following thoughts seek to clarify those things and are shared on behalf of the individuals listed on the bottom of this post.
Why it’s Offensive
Wearing culturally specific and revered expressions of identity as a costume is an offensive act and an expression of white privilege. These “costumes” perpetuate racial and cultural stereotypes, reduce entire communities to a set of props and qualities, and result in cultural appropriation and misrepresentation. To suggest that such behavior “may be perceived as offensive” makes any reaction to these racist caricatures a question of sensitivity or feelings. We need to recognize that being upset about such costumes is not a reflection of a person’s hypersensitivity or lack of humor. Rather, it points to the very real power, consequences, and trauma that come with stereotypes and racism. As the Ohio University group Students Teaching About Racism (STAR) appropriately called out, “You wear the costume for one night, I wear the stigma for life.”
For those who don’t see anything wrong with wearing culturally-themed Halloween costumes, please consider the following:
- Would you wear this publicly without any reservations?
- Are those who you are depicting laughing with you?
- What stereotypes are you perpetuating and what messages are you sending?
People have the freedom to say and dress however they choose, but this freedom comes with responsibility.
Why it Matters
Women in the Somali community are well acquainted with comments like “nice costume” or “can I borrow your outfit for Halloween?” And it often comes from people who have deep hostilities toward us, and particularly against our identities as immigrants, black people, and Muslims. So you can imagine the horror that ensued when an officer of the law took these ideas further and acted upon them. Mocking a culture is racist regardless of who the perpetrator is, but the consequences have deeper reverberations when it’s done by someone who is a public servant and maintains a position of power.
In this case, what may have began as a tasteless joke actually raises a bias question and creates public safety issues. As a result, community members may believe that there’s no point in reporting crimes since those tasked with protecting us may have a bias or question if officers take the concerns from the community seriously. This may also result in community members not cooperating with police when issues arise due to a perception that those who make up the institution don’t respect them or care about their needs.
This is what happens when ambassadors of police departments mock the religion and culture of people in our increasingly diverse community. But this doesn’t just impact Somalis – acts of racism also raise red flags with other communities of color and will undoubtedly fuel mistrust between law enforcement agencies and communities.
While there must be some individual accountability in this situation, it’s also critical to address the institutional responsibility. Much of the media scrutiny has focused on officer Robert Buth and the St. Paul Police Department, but equal scrutiny must be placed on Target Corp. and its employees. The person who posted the photo and some of the individuals who wrote supportive comments on that post were employees at the Midway Target. It’s also believed that the Halloween party in question involved several Target employees. Target must be willing to address the climate racism that exists among its employees. We are concerned for all the individuals of color who work at or frequent Target Midway, and hope that swift action is taken to ensure that the values of inclusivity and diversity that the corporation holds so dearly are honored in practice.
Regarding SPPD, the department must use this opportunity to deepen its relationships in the Somali community, and increase its capacity to serve this community. We ultimately hope both institutions and others in the Twin Cities use this terrible event as an opportunity to learn.
But we don’t want this to become a one-time cultural competency training. We want to see meaningful change that addresses racial justice as part of ongoing professional development efforts. Here are some examples of the types of efforts that ought to be considered if they aren’t already in practice:
- Institutions should take advantage of individual and organizational assessment tools like the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) to measure how each employee is doing in terms of their cross-cultural development. Tools like this are highly valuable in terms of identifying bias on an individual and organizational level. Results are confidential between an employee and the supervisor, and the process is meant to be instructive in addressing challenges and not meant to punish.
- We hope institutions employ ongoing cultural competency efforts that don’t start or end with a clause in an employee handbook. This means continuous engagement on this topic and exposure to communities of color. These things must be institutionalized through policy and practice. An example would be St. Paul police officers doing more foot patrols instead of driving through a neighborhood or Target management ensuring that they are recruiting talent from diverse communities so that they don’t create situations where the organizational structure fails to include people of color in management roles. As outsiders, we can’t make any meaningful suggestions, but we hope these examples inspire creativity within these institutions. We just know that change needs to happen.
This is not an exhaustive or prescription list of tips, and we hope that all Minnesota institutions incorporate racial equity and justice into their work. The fact that this type of behavior is happening in our community suggests that we have a serious problem.
We started the twitter campaign to draw awareness to this particular issue while also initiating a broader discussion on race. We’ve adapted elements of STAR’s “We’re Not a Costume, We’re a Culture” campaign and tagline to start a discussion on twitter. We hope you will all join the conversation using the hashtag #CultureNOTCostume.