Baron Samedi and Maman Brigitte. Yea or Nay?
October 29, 2012 8:49 AM   Subscribe

My friend says my Halloween idea might be racist. This took me completely by surprise. I was skeptical, but after stewing over it I'm now looking for a second opinion.

I don't have much money to spend on a costume this year, and when that happens I go for a character dressed in formal wear (because I don't get to wear my formal-best often enough). This year, I am in possession of a walking stick with three stacked skulls on top, and have a black tailcoat. My plan is to do Baron Samedi, and ask the woman I've been seeing (who is black) if she wants to do Maman Brigitte.

However, one of my friends suggested that this (me playing the Baron) might be racist/possibly blackface/otherwise offensive (though the Maman costume was fine). It had never occurred to me that that might be the case; I'm not trying to hide my (super-white, Scandinavian ancestry) skin color. I'd be applying some black and white paint exclusively to the front "plane" of my face to achieve the skull look. Black hair dye might be included (mostly to match the rest of the stark black/white costume; my hair is light brown, some have said blonde) - or I might do white hair if I can pull it off.

So, is this potentially offensive? Like I said, I never thought of it before, but now that it's been mentioned I'm slightly concerned. My intent certainly isn't to attempt blackface or anything like that. I think the Baron/Maman concept would be a very cool set of costumes, not like the usual cutesy "couples" costumes.

Putting this into human relations since it's not a search for advice on how to do a costume/what to do, but rather whether it would be questionable or acceptable.
posted by Urban Winter to Human Relations (70 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Well, from my meager research they seem to be religious figures (spirits) in a religion that you weren't raised in and don't practice, and for that reason I personally would avoid them. Regardless of whether it's blackface, you probably don't want to end up misrepresenting or appropriating someone's sincere beliefs and rituals.

Even if you're as respectful as possible, it just seems too easy to be dickish or disrespectful when you start getting into other people's religions.
posted by the young rope-rider at 8:56 AM on October 29, 2012 [22 favorites]

I would not wear any makeup that could be possibly construed as blackface. Did your friend elaborate on his/her thinking?

Possibly offensive on the "religious sensitivity" level since people do actually practice Voodoo as a religion, but it seems to be relatively socially acceptable to dress as religious figures on Halloween.
posted by deanc at 8:57 AM on October 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm black and I'd have to say - although it's not offensive to me, I can see where some people might get offended.
posted by heartquake at 8:58 AM on October 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

We've done this before on AskMe, and the correct answer to thinking about blackface is still no.
posted by roofus at 9:01 AM on October 29, 2012 [4 favorites]

For the record, I am not really concerned about offending any Haitian Voodoo adherents here in the northeastern US. Nor would I be concerned about dressing up as Jesus/Satan/enter other religious figure here. I'm asking purely about the potential race thing, not the characters' status as religious figures.
posted by Urban Winter at 9:02 AM on October 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

Furthermore, since Vodou is one of those religions that practices spirit possession or certain celebrants being "ridden" by the lwa, there's an actual practice of dressing up like the Baron and Maman Brigette, and assuming particular atttitudes/postures associated with them, eating/drinking their favorite foods, etc. While I think this would normally be sort of a borderline grey area, the fact that this tradition in particular uses those costumes in ceremonial ways, to signify particular things, pushes it over into the territory of, "Leave it alone lest thy seem like an appropriating nutjob who has no idea what he's talking about."

What about something still cool and appropriate but less overtly religious and more generally seasonal? You could be the Winter Queen and the Summer King and she could lead you around by your "severed" head (draw a big red line around your throat and give her a knife.)
posted by WidgetAlley at 9:02 AM on October 29, 2012 [8 favorites]

I agree with deanc, I wouldn't wear anything that could be construed as blackface, even if it wasn't intended to be blackface. I also would not dress as a religious figure, unless it was a religious figure from my own religion.
posted by insectosaurus at 9:02 AM on October 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

Neither your profile nor your question list your location, but in the American context of the movie whose character you would be portraying - YES THAT WOULD BE A PRETTY DAMN RACIST THING TO DO. While blackface may have different kinds of history in some parts of the world, though for the most part in the Anglophone world it really doesn't, in the Unites States blackface has been used within living memory as a brutal cultural instrument of racial oppression and it doesn't have a happy history in Haiti either.

On top of this, you would be portraying a character who is himself a pretty racially and religiously complex caracature of the Voodoo religion.
posted by Blasdelb at 9:02 AM on October 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

totally harmless, and an original idea too.
posted by facetious at 9:03 AM on October 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'm kind of a "when in doubt don't" person on matters of racism/cultural appropriation, so I would not wear such a costume. White/mainstream culture has a long history of treating voudoun as sort of an exotic prop even though it is a living religion/cultural practice, so I feel like it would be hard to avoid playing into that even with the most benign of intentions.

I mean "death in a tailcoat" is a pretty classic costume; I'm not exactly sure I'd see this and think "Baron Samedi" if you were to leave off either the skull make-up or the cane (or the tophat, if you're planning to wear one). You and your girlfriend could easily dial this down to "Death/spooky people in formalwear" and avoid the whole problem while still looking dapper.

Also, I notice that when I do google image searches, especially for "Maman Brigitte", I find some costumes that seem kind of...troubling. This suggests that there's a visual rhetoric of problem costumes around this theme.

And last, why spend the evening worrying semi-consciously about your costume maybe being racially problematic? In my own case, I've always had a better time when I've decided to skip the "is it or isn't it?" item and not worry about it.
posted by Frowner at 9:03 AM on October 29, 2012 [4 favorites]

This is not the least bit racist. You are portraying a legendary Voudoun character for a costume party, not jiving and shuffling in blackface.

On preview: "offending religious sensibilities" is just silly. Does anybody worry about offending pagans on Halloween?
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 9:04 AM on October 29, 2012 [26 favorites]

I'm asking purely about the potential race thing, not the characters' status as religious figures.

Yes, but, since the religion is practiced almost entirely by persons of color, there is a huge huge huge overlay between the two that can't really be separated. Even if a person of color who isn't a vodouisant sees you, they may know about the religious aspect because it's part of their general heritage-- and then you once again return to strong overtones of racial/religious misunderstanding due to this white guy thinking it's fun to play dress-up as other people's religious figures, in a religion that was created as a way to preserve traditions that were being obliterated because of racial tensions and inequalities.

So really they're the same thing.
posted by WidgetAlley at 9:05 AM on October 29, 2012 [25 favorites]

Blacking out your eye's and nose and maybe a little shading on your jaw line to create a skull look is about as close to blackface as KISS is. That said, if the internet has taught me anything, it's that if you make a giant M&M costume, somebody, somewhere would find something suggestive about your color choice.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 9:06 AM on October 29, 2012 [12 favorites]

Some say all blackface is offensive, while I'm personally of the opinion that it's the overall "black minstral" that's offensive, and blackface as an element of that is what's offensive, but it can be done with taste. For example, Fred Armisen's Obama impersonation involved darkening his skin, but it was a respectable parody (IMO).

Baron Semadi as depicted in the Bond film "Live and Let Die" was partly made up with bright white makeup-- can you create a "skull mask" face (perhaps with black outlines") that would achieve the same affect on your skin even though you're a person of pallor?
posted by Sunburnt at 9:06 AM on October 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

Were you thinking of this sort of thing?

That doesn't seem like blackface at all. Seems closer to Dias De Los Muertos type skullface, which is both common and acceptable here in Los Angeles.
posted by Conductor71 at 9:06 AM on October 29, 2012 [17 favorites]

Although, for the record, I think if you were to remove the major identifying characteristics of the Baron and Maman and just go as spooky dead dates in formalwear, you wouldn't necessarily lose anything by it AND you wouldn't look like you were wearing blackface, so that's a win all around. I think that'd be a fun costume.
posted by WidgetAlley at 9:08 AM on October 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

Isn't Baron Samedi supposed to have a white face anyway? If you use white base makeup for most of your face, using black only as a "contour" color (e.g., to make your eye sockets look more skull-like) I don't see how anyone would think you were dressing up in blackface.

As for whether or not anyone would find it offensive or racist... you can't always control what other people are going to think. I've had friends dress up as Poseidon for Halloween. Potentially offensive to Greeks? I've seen people dress up as Moses for Halloween, complete with inscribed tablets. Potentially offensive to Jews? I've seen people dress up as hillbillies for Halloween. Potentially offensive to, um, hillbillies? I've seen people dress up as sexy nurses. Potentially offensive to nurses? In all of these cases, there is the possibility that someone will decide to take offense -- or, more likely, that someone will decide to take offense of behalf of someone else.

Considering that Baron Samedi is a religious figure, I would only really be concerned that it might offend a practitioner of Haitian Vodou. In this connection, it might be worth considering that he has been portrayed many, many times in movies, comics, etc. in a wide variety of ways. I can't say that I've payed close attention, but I am not aware that this has caused any great controversy. On the other hand, if you want to be 100% safe, you probably shouldn't do it. On the other other hand, it's hard to imagine a costume that's 100% safe and isn't 100% boring.
posted by slkinsey at 9:09 AM on October 29, 2012 [4 favorites]

It doesn't seem like blackface to me, but that is because I did some searches and saw pictures such as that linked by Conductor71 -- mostly white makeup with some black to make it look skull-like. I don't know enough about the characters to know if they are themselves somehow racially provocative.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 9:09 AM on October 29, 2012

Blacking out your eye's and nose and maybe a little shading on your jaw line to create a skull look is about as close to blackface as KISS is.

I agree, but why give people an "opening" to be misinterpreted?. I'd tread carefully there and consider opting for a skull mask.

I think it's a great costume, BTW, but my own religious sensibilities would prevent me from going in that direction. But my standards are different than others, just as Frowner has much different "cultural appropriation" standards than I have.
posted by deanc at 9:09 AM on October 29, 2012

Wait, you're in America? WTF? Wandering around in blackface in the United States is about as tasteful as wandering around dressed as Hitler. Try watching this movie by Spike Lee and see if you still have questions. Blackface is not a can of worms you want to open.

On preview, so long as you go with something like what Conductor71 found, that is unlikely to read as blackface.
posted by Blasdelb at 9:11 AM on October 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

Bear in mind that the black paint used in a Samedi costume is not blackface - it's literally black, worn to contrast with the skull painted onto his face in white. For instance.

If you're not worried about the religious angle, I'd say it's fine.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 9:12 AM on October 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Considering that Baron Samedi is a religious figure, I would only really be concerned that it might offend a practitioner of Haitian Vodou. In this connection, it might be worth considering that he has been portrayed many, many times in movies, comics, etc. in a wide variety of ways. I can't say that I've payed close attention, but I am not aware that this has caused any great controversy.

Yes, portrayed exceptionally poorly, almost exclusively in ways that demonize practicioners of Vodou and their religious figures with extremely overt tones of racism. Even the NYT has written about it. Vodou is a popular harvesting ground for horror tropes and monsters, and I think, if anything, that makes the situation even worse because there is a loooooong history of what is, essentially, a black African-derived religion being co-opted to be the playground of white people, in a way that Greek religion or Norse religion hasn't been. Basically, what I'm trying to say is that, even if it's NOT interpreted as blackface, it's still kinda racist based on the relationship that white America has had with vodou. And even if you're NOT concerned with the religious angle, well.... there's still that huge racism-and-treatment-of-black-religion-in-media can of worms.

I'm going to stop threadsitting now, I think I've said all I need to say.
posted by WidgetAlley at 9:13 AM on October 29, 2012 [32 favorites]

I also think "when in doubt, just don't." What do you lose by not dressing up in this particular costume? Like others have said, dead/zombie prom dates or something could make use of most of the same clothing and makeup. On the other hand, what do you lose if you go out in this costume and you offend someone? You might lose relationships that are important to you. Is this costume worth that risk?

Also, you already know that someone in your social circle thinks this costume is offensive: the friend who mentioned it to you. What's stopping you from taking them at their word?
posted by snorkmaiden at 9:14 AM on October 29, 2012 [4 favorites]

I'd suggest ignoring us here and asking your girlfriend how she feels about all of this. Because this costume isn't happening without her, right?
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 9:19 AM on October 29, 2012 [4 favorites]

Seems closer to Dias De Los Muertos type skullface, which is both common and acceptable here in Los Angeles
Common, certainly - but that doesn't mean everyone thinks it's acceptable.

From the responses in this thread, it's clear that some people will side-eye you, and some people won't care. I wouldn't wear a costume that some people think is racist. There are plenty of other funny, unique, and awesome costumes to wear instead.
posted by insectosaurus at 9:21 AM on October 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

As you can see by this thread, it will be impossible to do this without offending someone, or numerous someones. While I agree that the traditional white makeup with black accents used to portray this character is not the same thing as blackface (skullface seems more correct), it seems a lot easier to just do something else, since there is a lot of cultural baggage inherent in portraying figures from an afro-caribbean religion.

Also, I wonder how many people calling this "blackface" would say the same thing about the virtually identical makeup for a Corpse Bride costume or a Jack Skellington costume. Presumably no one?
posted by elizardbits at 9:23 AM on October 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seems closer to Dias De Los Muertos type skullface, which is both common and acceptable here in Los Angeles

This is on pretty much the same level of cultural appropriation as the costume being considered by the OP, actually. Apparently this is a different level for different people.
posted by elizardbits at 9:24 AM on October 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

Please don't. WidgetAlley best articulates the reason not to.

If I saw you wearing such a costume at party, I wouldn't think you were a racist. I'd think you were foolish -- flashing your ignorance of privilege like peacock feathers.
posted by jessca84 at 9:26 AM on October 29, 2012 [16 favorites]

Let's say you sincerely offend some people. This seems quite possible from the reaction in this thread.

But as also seems quite possible from the reaction on this thread, reasonable people can disagree. So let's say those people are "wrong" to be offended, because your costume is either not intended to be racist or, in some objective way, not actually racist.

Congratulations. You're right and they're wrong. So what? You've still worn a costume to a party that has sincerely offended people. Do you want to be right, or do you want to have fun?
posted by caek at 9:26 AM on October 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

For the record, I am not really concerned about offending any Haitian Voodoo adherents here in the northeastern US.

It's funny, I was just on the phone with someone whose family is in two major East coast cities and I asked him about it. He said that these spirits are still taken somewhat seriously by the older members of his Haitian immigrant family despite the fact that they are very serious fundamentalist Christians. He would personally find it "more ignorant and privileged than offensive." So go ahead, I guess.
posted by the young rope-rider at 9:27 AM on October 29, 2012 [6 favorites]

He would personally find it "more ignorant and privileged than offensive."

Yeah, this. I mean, it sounds like you want to do a nice job making an authentic-looking costume that will be aesthetically appealing, and that you have no plans to make a mockery of anything or anyone, which is obviously the best way to go into something like this. But if in a similar situation, I saw a white person wearing a historically accurate/authentic Native American ceremonial dress as a Halloween costume, I would be a bit offended, but I would mostly think "ugh white people why you do this" for probably the millionth time and then forget about it.
posted by elizardbits at 9:34 AM on October 29, 2012 [24 favorites]

My own perspective is that given that a friend of mine once dressed in a bloody "Christ nailed to the cross" costume, and had I shown up to that particular party, I would have had a hard time speaking to him, it seems a bit rich for me to talk about how it wouldn't be a problem to dress as someone else's religious figures. (aside: I likely would have regarded a "Buddy Christ" costume with more amusement)

However, social standards in the northeastern US are totally fine with this kind of thing. Someone, somewhere, is going to be offended, sure, but if you would be ok with dressing up as Kali or Krishna, then go for it.

I think the concept is awesome. But if I wanted to follow my own personal standards, I would repackage it as Manny Calavera and his wife. Or the grim reaper and is wife. But if you don't have "religious sensitivity" standards, fine.
posted by deanc at 9:36 AM on October 29, 2012

[Voodoo is] a black African-derived religion being co-opted to be the playground of white people, in a way that Greek religion or Norse religion hasn't been

What? and What?

To answer the question: This black woman (who was, admittedly, raised in a country where people are generally more decent to each other and so racial issues are less testy) says that:

1.) Assuming that Baron Samedi makeup == blackface shows an astonishing level of ignorance.
2.) I dressed as zombie jesus for halloween a couple of years back, so I guess we are on the same page as far as "respect" for religious figures during Halloween.
3.) If it counts for anything, you have my permission to wear this costume. As long as you don't try to do a accent or use stereotypical voudoun mannerisms to "punch it up a little" or whatnot -- that's what crosses the line into offensiveness.

Wear the costume, know the history and background behind the character. If anyone challenges you on it, educate them. Like with the word "niggardly" allowing the fear of possibly offending an idiot to keep you from expressing yourself just diminishes everyone's experience (and gives the people who believe that the world has become too "PC" fodder).
posted by sparklemotion at 9:42 AM on October 29, 2012 [10 favorites]

The problem with this is less that it is racist (in my opinion it is not) and more that it has the potential to ruin your Halloween fun. Say that instead, you were thinking about dressing up as Jesus, as you mentioned above. Okay, sure, but you would probably plan on being the friendly, mellow, robed and bearded version, right? That flavor of Jesus is quite common - everyone around you in the Northeast US is going to understand what you're doing and meaning. Your motivations won't be questioned. But if you went as currently-being-crucified Jesus? You get into trouble, despite perhaps being more true to the portrayal of Jesus in certain segments of the religious population local to you as well as more Halloweenie. The only situation where being a religious figure for halloween isn't at least a little risky is when that religion is almost completely defunct, like if you're going as Zeus or Bastet or something.

Baron Samedi is an awesome, badass, underappreciated character and religious figure. I love most all portrayals of him. But this is Halloween, where you're gauging your response not on "are there any considerate and well-rounded people who will appreciate this" but rather on "what won't get booze thrown at me by a sugar-and-whiskey-fueled idiot". As you can see, even "sober", "civilized" and "educated" people here on AskMe (elizardbits, the sarcastiquotes are for you) are in disagreement, so don't push it, unless you're specifically intending to be controversial. There isn't enough consistency in what other people will think when you roll up as Baron Samedi, as compared to Jesus, no matter how cool the costume is. And that means you're risking your formalwear to the vagaries of someone else's sensibilities.
posted by Mizu at 9:46 AM on October 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think you'd do better to check in with than relying on the hothouse sensibilities of AskMe.

Halloween costumes are supposed to be both irreverent and macabre, and Baron Samedi counts as both. It's not blackface — those folks don't know what the fuck they're talking about. (And I'm totally willing to cop the following feeling as making me jerkish, but: I'm not worried about seeming ignorant to religious people because they follow a codified superstition. The more seriously they take that, the less seriously I take them.)
posted by klangklangston at 9:49 AM on October 29, 2012 [10 favorites]

You're allowed to wear outlandish makeup on Halloween. It is not racist to incorporate the color black into your makeup. You're allowed to dress as just about any character you can think of, as long as you feel like it would be a fun costume.

Dressing up as a certain figure for Halloween is not inherently disrespectful of that figure. On the contrary, it's considered more socially acceptable to dress as a celebrated figure (Charlie Chaplin, Elvis Presley) than a hated figure (Hitler).

Since you've framed this question by using inflammatory words like "racist" and "blackface" before getting into the specifics of what you're going to do, it's natural that some people have taken the opportunity to talk about how racist blackface is. But what you're describing isn't blackface, so the fact that blackface is considered racist in the United States is irrelevant to your actual question. This idea that white people have to stay away from resembling anything that's even vaguely connected to black people is as racist as blackface itself. Go ahead and dress however you want. However, it seems that excessive political correctness may have already spoiled the fun for you this year, in which case you might want to try another costume.
posted by John Cohen at 10:00 AM on October 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

Halloween itself is offensive to a good segment of the population for all kinds of reasons ranging to religious, to religiously stupid. I tend to think MeFites run hypersensitive on such issues, especially when race is involved.

Around here, Baron Samedi would likely be welcomed about as much as all the calaca-faced folks I saw last weekend, which tie in with the seasonal Halloween-All Saints/Souls Day-Day of the Dead celebrations. I'd be surprised if many folks you encounter were such killjoys, or if they even interpreted the costume as blackface at all.
posted by 2N2222 at 10:08 AM on October 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

Not racist. Not blackface either.
posted by wrok at 10:18 AM on October 29, 2012 [4 favorites]

I do not see why so many people are harping on blackface when the OP was clear that he'll be applying white and black makeup so that his face is painted as a skull. Does anyone think Johnny and the Cobra Kai were attempting some sort of minstrel schtick?

Skull facepaint should cause offense to no one, but some people love to be offended. Every party needs a pooper.

Also, no one is going to be worried about the religious overtones of your costume because they will be too busy yucking it up over the guest in the pregnant nun costume.
posted by Tanizaki at 10:20 AM on October 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

It seems to me that the racial aspect leaves the costume open to interpretation...... it is not, as you say, 'blackface' to dress up as Baron Samedi, but someone who doesn't KNOW you're supposed to be the Baron might mistake your costume & makeup FOR blackface, and be insulted because of that. As far as the Voudou angle goes, yes you would be portraying a religious figure, and yes that too is an insensitive thing to do --- and that goes no matter WHAT religion we're talking about --- especially when you're doing that portrayal for a holiday like Halloween: basically, you want to dress up as a religious figure FOR LAUGHS. At best, that's tacky.

So: sorry, but I've got to recommend AGAINST a Baron Samedi costume.

Alternatively, since you really want to use your formal wear in a costume: consider Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
posted by easily confused at 10:21 AM on October 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

It strikes me as problematic for a white American man to appropriate the image/costume of a religious figure from a Haitian religious tradition practiced almost entirely by poor people of color. I don't think that this is analogous to dressing as Jesus Christ. I think it's analogous to dressing as a Native American religious figure, or another religious figure that is important to a group of people historically and currently oppressed or disadvantaged. I'm not saying it's definitely racist, just that I can see how it might be considered poor taste among some.

I think that there's value (and fun) in being irreverent and poking fun at powerful people, figures, or symbols. The example of dressing up as Jesus Christ would, as far as I'm concerned, fall into that category. I think that it's crude and oblivious to be irreverent toward and poke fun at the figures or symbols important to oppressed people.

It doesn't sound like you intend for this costume to mock Haitians or their religious beliefs, but I still think that sensitivity is best when you're a member of a privileged population questioning whether your actions would be offensive to members of an oppressed, vulnerable, or otherwise disadvantaged population.
posted by Meg_Murry at 10:23 AM on October 29, 2012 [14 favorites]

someone who doesn't KNOW you're supposed to be the Baron might mistake your costume & makeup FOR blackface, and be insulted because of that.

If he said he was going to dress up as the grim reaper and used a combination of white and black facepaint to create a skull effect, I don't think anyone would accuse him of using blackface. It only treads a line if the viewer knows he's the Baron.
posted by deanc at 10:30 AM on October 29, 2012

If you're worried that it's racist because of the blackface issue, it's not. But if you're even the slightest bit concerned that it's cultural appropriation or religiously offensive, then please don't do it.

Although the idea is truly awesome, there's something about it that makes me uncomfortable. Much like my English friend and his band painting their face calaca-style. It looked really cool and I'm sure there was a level of respect there, but it still felt wrong to me.
posted by elsietheeel at 10:33 AM on October 29, 2012

I agree with Snorkmaiden here. I think people can argue whether this costume is offensive for race or religion-based reasons until the cows come home. The thing is that someone in your social circle (I presume a friend, or someone you are friendly with?) has already told you that they find this idea offensive. And the mixed reaction in this thread seems like evidence that other people might feel the same way. So why push it? I don't know. Personally, sheer novelty or the perceived coolness of a costume idea would not be sufficient grounds for me to feel okay overruling a friend's affronted feelings. Particularly when there are so many other great ideas that won't make your friends think you got your costume at the jerk store, this just doesn't seem worth it to me, but those are just my two cents.
posted by anonnymoose at 10:41 AM on October 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

You know, the most problematic part of this for me is your date. (I notice that you don't even call her your girlfriend, so I'm guessing that this is a relatively new relationship.) I get the impression that you only thought of this costume idea because she is black. Since the Baron and Maman are a married (black, although dead) couple, it kind of seems like you and the woman you're dating are dressing up as a black couple for Halloween. Your literal makeup -- skullface -- isn't as important as the fact that you're using your date's race as part of your Halloween costume. That gives me an icky feeling.

Go as a formal Grim Reaper couple and sidestep this.
posted by purpleclover at 10:47 AM on October 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

Since the Baron and Maman are a married (black, although dead) couple, it kind of seems like you and the woman you're dating are dressing up as a black couple for Halloween

I'm a total newcomer to who or what these two characters/deities/figures are but my brief googling all seems to indicate that Maman is actually white/of British descent. So. Yeah. I think there's a lot of Very Confident Statements going on in this thread from people who don't necessarily have all the information or context.

That said, maybe that's a reason this whole idea isn't a fantastic idea.
posted by olinerd at 10:54 AM on October 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

For the record, I am not really concerned about offending any Haitian Voodoo adherents here in the northeastern US. Nor would I be concerned about dressing up as Jesus/Satan/enter other religious figure here. I'm asking purely about the potential race thing, not the characters' status as religious figures.

You should be concerned. "Voodoo" is an Afro-Caribbean religion, and is as much an ethnic practice as it is spiritual. I actually texted a good Haitian friend of mine about this question, and they replied with: "no practitioner would dare; no non-practitioner who understood and respected their importance and influence in Haitian culture would dare."

I get that it has creative potential. I also get that it isn't an explicitly racist thing, and therefore in a grey area for most. And it's also easy to ignore the ways that race, religion and culture intertwine, because things get sticky in situations like this. Suddenly, all the kinda cool stuff gets put off-limits.

Except you could easily come up with another costume that does not pull from another person's culture, right? Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter perhaps? Like I'd be irritated if some non-Nigerian or non-Afro-Caribbean decided to dress as Oshun, who is a water goddess from my culture that also made her way into Vodun. Especially because no Nigerian or Caribbean person I know thinks that aspects of their heritage should be turned into Halloween costumes.

So there's that.
posted by Ashen at 10:56 AM on October 29, 2012 [14 favorites]

Also, OP, it depends on where in the Northeast you are, but Boston (for example) has a fairly good size Haitian immigrant community.
posted by olinerd at 10:57 AM on October 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

Thanks for the corrections. It's possible that google image search is not the best place to form an opinion about this.

I still think there's an odd dynamic bringing up voodoo when your date is a woman of color.
posted by purpleclover at 10:59 AM on October 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

Honestly, I feel like religious figures should be off limits because there's a fine line between dressing up as someone to make fun of them and dressing up as someone to pay homage to them. The folks who do the former ruin it for the latter. I'd be seriously grossed out to see someone dressed up as Krishna for Halloween, and my best friends would be offended to see the Pope, a Rabbi, or Dio De Los Muertos skulls for obvious reasons. Voodoo figures shouldn't be exempt from respect, you know? But it often is, just as Native American and Hawaiian beliefs are often ignored.

I'd vote no on this one.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 11:21 AM on October 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

What a bunch of baffling responses here. No, this is most certainly not racist, the costume has almost nothing to do with race, and it's not even blackface.
posted by Cosine at 11:22 AM on October 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

What if you reversed the genders and you went as Maman Brigitte and your friend went as Baron Samedi instead?
posted by cazoo at 11:32 AM on October 29, 2012

I still think there's an odd dynamic bringing up voodoo when your date is a woman of color.

Is your date interested in vodoun, or other aspects of Afro-Caribbean religion, or cultural appropriations thereof, e.g. William Gibson's Count Zero? Has she ever mentioned any of the above to you? Is your idea consistent with longstanding interests you've previously mentioned to her? If any of the above is true, then you're on somewhat less shaky ground for proposing this joint venture.

Applying skull make-up to your face strikes a false note: your costume is more meaningful if you become a horse for the loa to ride. People possessed by Maman Brigitte don't change their eye color (which is why purpleclover's image search failed), and people being possessed by Baron Samedi don't historically spend their time or (very limited) money on Halloween store supplies, although they would put on their best clothes, walk with his characteristic stride, etc.

If your date wants to go as Erzulie, though, fancy perfume is de rigeur.
posted by feral_goldfish at 11:39 AM on October 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Obviously, blackface in any form is completely offensive and I know you know that. This is about the costume as a whole. If you are doing a tasteful, skull faced gentleman costume as your concept of Baron Samedi rather than any attempt at all to appear like you, a white man, is actually a black man, I don't think the costume itself is racist.


I have no idea where you are from, and what the racial tensions are, and I am probably not the person you should be asking here, nor is anyone on Metafilter.

And asking your girlfriend if she wants to be a character for Halloween based on her skin color sounds damned offensive to me.

Why don't you run your costume idea for yourself by her and she what she says about the idea? If she then wants to wear a complementary costume she can surely decide that for herself. If she wants nothing to do with your idea, or suggests it might be insensitive, I'd follow her lead if she is going to be your date for Halloween.

In addition, if you've already had feedback from a friend that your costume might seem racist to some...well, that would probably be enough for me to rethink the concept and modify it, at least, based on that friend's objections.
posted by misha at 11:41 AM on October 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think it's great that you would like to Halloween responsibly.

As someone from an Afro-caribbean family, who you know, spent time in the northeast (whoo Massachusetts!), I've got to tell you that if we came face to face on halloween, I'd be grimacing.

Appropriating culturally, religiously specific figures of marginalized populations because you want an original costume, when it seems as if you know little about the actual person, is wince worthy. Yeah, people do it, but Bird of a Feather is right - if you're not paying homage, and you're talking about a specific person, and your an outsider to the culture or the community, you need to pass it by. It's why Pocahontas is off limits for so many people. On the other hand, I think if I approached you, and it was clear that both you (and your girlfriend) understood the significance of who you were emulating, we'd be fine.

It's not racist. It's not blackface. But it's wince worthy, because it's culturally tone deaf. I hope that just because you don't think you won't run into any practitioners of the religion means you think it's okay to wear it. The same way that blackface is still so, so wrong, even if there are no Black people (in your country, at the party, etc.) around to point that out to you.
posted by anitanita at 11:53 AM on October 29, 2012 [8 favorites]

I agree with Ashen on this. I just sat through a lecture on Haitian vodou a couple of weeks ago and this is a giant OH HELL TO THE NO idea. Way offensive, super bad idea.
posted by jenfullmoon at 12:00 PM on October 29, 2012

Ahem. I have nothing to add to the advice above. If you want to wear your tux, and you can dance, consider going as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. You might ask your SO if she would mind walking backwards in high heels all night.
Other wise, get a monocle and dress up as Mister Peanut.
posted by Cranberry at 1:15 PM on October 29, 2012

To me it feels like cultural appropriation. It's not blackface. But it's icky.
posted by feets at 1:34 PM on October 29, 2012

As far as I see it, OP, you've been given the a-okay for this costume. It's not blackface if you're doing the skull paint.

The issue that people have been having, and it seems about equal on both sides, is whether the cultural appropriation angle is an issue - which is something you'll have to answer for yourself. To be blunt, most people won't care, or even recognize your costume - they'll just think that it looks cool. Maybe my perspective of the world is skewed having lived in North and Central Texas, but my understanding is that Metafilter's demographics are heavily skewed towards having this sort of response to cultural appropriation that you typically won't find at random in the world. Not that I disagree with the sentiment, but for whatever reason I don't think it too important to be so hostile to the costume idea since I can't imagine any situations where I have lived of this actually being deemed improper or anything.
posted by SollosQ at 1:57 PM on October 29, 2012 [4 favorites]

I would wear it. In most social issues, people are very pro- Personal Choice™. I see this no differently. It is your choice, and if you are not trying to offend, it isn't a big deal. Your costume idea is *not* blackface, in my opinion.
posted by tacodave at 4:26 PM on October 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

I wouldn't say it's black face, but I'd think it was pretty rude. New England Afro-Latina here.
posted by spunweb at 6:14 PM on October 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

It is most definitely cultural appropriation.
posted by dottiechang at 12:19 AM on October 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

As others have noted, it's the implication of typecasting your girlfriend as "voodoo priestess" because she's black that's most immediately offensive, even if your intent is to portray actual Loa (and even if Maman is traditionally of European ethnicity, which may be lost on many who know just enough to generally recognize the Vodou references.)

Don't use your girlfriend's race as a Halloween prop, unless she suggests something along those lines in mutually brainstorming couples costumes. And even then I'd be reluctant, because it might make a very poor impression on others.
posted by snuffleupagus at 4:24 AM on October 30, 2012

As near as I can understand, both The Baron and Maman Brigitte are skulls. Skulls don't have a race.

From the cultural appropriation angle, I'd just make sure I really understood these figures. I mean, no one would get upset if you went as Aleister Crowley.
posted by cmoj at 10:18 AM on October 30, 2012

Just adding my tuppence; I have been in exactly your situation.

I love the character, the mystique, and I think I would look pretty damn fine in a coat and tails with a top hat and cane.

However, regarding the blackface. I have a good friend who is black. She knows who Baron Samedi is, would recognise the costume and not be personally offended by it, BUT she still thinks it would be wrong to do it. Why? Because she knows she is in the minority in recognising it. Many people would not, and would think that it's a white dude imitating being a black person in weird clothes.

Think about where you intend to go and who will see you. Is it a private house party with individuals who would know the character and think it a good costume AND would you get there without encountering less knowledgeable members of the public? If so, then you might be OK with this costume.

Otherwise, don't do it.

cmoj, the Baron Samedi's face is often depicted as half-black, half-skull.
posted by fearnothing at 6:59 PM on October 30, 2012

This obviously isn't blackface, and anyone who doesn't get the reference will just think you're a skeleton in a top hat. (Which works as a costume on it's own.)

Cultural appropriation involves more than a costume for a night; and anyone crying foul about it I hope never does anything for Halloween, given that they're almost certainly not of the culture the holiday comes from.

Just do it; there's always someone who's upset about something.
posted by spaltavian at 8:25 PM on October 30, 2012

At Halloween, doing something culturally specific that would potentially offend individuals of that culture, when you aren't of that culture, should be met with something a little more sound than phrases like:

Probably no one is going to have a problem with it. This is some PC metafilter filter right here.
Oh, I didn't think you would be here.
Really, it's not cultural misappropriation because that can't really happen in one night.
No, really, it's not blackface, so it's not racist.
I was thinking you'd think I was a skeleton.
But Halloween is about irreverence!
Yeah, we'll you can't please everyone ....someone is always offended

All of which made been mentioned, as well as those that haven't:

I didn't mean any disrespect.
Lots of people wear this costume.
My girlfriend's with me, and she's black, and okay with it.
What, no one says anything when black people dress up as white people

Look, if you're in a situation where most of your explanations to someone in the know would just sound tone deaf, as if you are blinded by privilege, like you are a racist when you're not a racist, or stupid, it's not worth it.

Stop thinking probability that someone is going to ask you if what you're doing is some bullshit right there vs. the number of people who are going to say you look cool. Instead value more significantly how Just one person, I don't know....the one Afro Latina person from new England who responded above? might ask you if what you're doing right there is some bullshit, and think if any of those answers above are ones you are comfortable with. If so, well, shine on you crazy diamond, shine on. But if any of that gives you pause, take solace in knowing that yes, you can probably wear that outfit without any harm or embarrassment coming to you, but there are a zillion incredible outfits that would get you the same respect without you having to potentially disrespect someone else to get it. That's your choice.

Noting that the fact that you have that choice? That's your privilege. We all have some privilege in some shape or form. Use it wisely.
posted by anitanita at 9:07 PM on October 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

Here's an article that I thought you might find relevant, specifically this part about Baron Samedi in the context of slavery and dictatorship in Haiti:
One of Baron’s spiritual functions, his most important, is to dig a person’s grave and welcome him to the other side. If for some reason a person has thwarted or offended Baron, the god will not allow that person, upon his death, to reach guinée. Then you’re a zombie. Some other lucky mortal can control you, it is believed. You’ll do the bidding of your master without question.

Haiti’s notorious dictator François Duvalier, known as Papa Doc, who controlled Haiti with a viselike grip from 1957 until his death in 1971, well understood the Baron’s role. He dressed like Baron, in a black fedora, business suit and heavy glasses or sunglasses. Like Baron at a ceremony, when Duvalier spoke publicly, it was often in a near whisper. His secret police, the Tontons Macoutes, behaved with the complete immorality and obedience of the undead, and were sometimes assumed to be zombies under the dictator’s control [...]
posted by the young rope-rider at 1:02 AM on October 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

it's not blackface

Yeah, it's not blackface. At all. Why are you rejecting that out of hand?
posted by spaltavian at 8:38 AM on October 31, 2012

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