Halloween Ethics! Facebook Ethics! Political Ethics! Blackface Ethics! It’s Tennessee’s Aunt Jemima Affair, the Ethics Controversy That Has Everything!

It’s just after Halloween, and followers of the ethics wars know what that means: somewhere, somebody is in trouble for their choice of costume.

Actually, in this case it’s someone in trouble for her choice of someone in costume to pose with: Tennessee Republican state Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver posted a picture on the Internet of her standing with her pastor, who had dressed up as Aunt Jemima—of syrup fame and black stereotype infamy— for some Halloween festivities. Her caption to the photo:

“Aunt Jemima, you is so sweet.”

Weaver has apologized, swearing that when she posed for the picture with her pastor, she did not know the photo would upset anybody. “It was fun, done in innocence. My friend is dressed up as syrup. He wife was going to be a pancake,” said Weaver. “I never intended to offend anyone. I took the picture off my Facebook. I apologize if it ever meant to offend anyone.”  Weaver,who apparently has lived in a cave since 1957,  also said she was not aware that Aunt Jemima represented black stereotypes to many people, and was unaware that wearing blackface was also considered offensive to the vast majority of Americans. Yes, she really did. (Note: I know Aunt Jemima as a brand of pancake mix; I did not think the logo  gracee any syrup containers. I assumed Weaver confused confused the good Aunt with her white rival. Mrs. Butterworth, who is a syrup brand. Aunt Jemima obviously hangs out with pancakes, so the pastor’s wife was on firm ground, no matter what. But thanks to a syrup-minded reader, I have been set straight: there is Aunt Jemima syrup, too)

State Sen. Thelma Harper, an African-American, said she and members of the Black Caucus want to put Harper before the House Ethics Committee.“This is what we have had to live with, making a mockery of being black and copying the language that Aunt Jemima used,” said Harper.

This controversy has everything! Halloween ethics! Blackface ethics! Facebook ethics! Political ethics! Syrup ethics!

Let’s go through them, shall we?

Halloween ethics: Halloween is about masquerade, disguise and cheek. Like April Fool’s Day, there are some ethical limits on what one should do in the spirit of the tradition—“tricks” shouldn’t include vandalism, for example—but in the matter of choosing costumes, almost anything goes. After all, losing Tea Party candidate Rich Iott’s favorite costume, the Nazi S.S. officer, might have been defensible if he had only worn it on Halloween, when people have traditionally dressed up as witches, ghosts, Dracula and Satan. Costumes can and do legitimately  include characters from fiction and movies, historical figures, religious, political or pop culture figures and even inanimate objects. I can’t see that there are any lines that can be drawn when the potential options are so broad and the guidelines are non-existent. I have seen Halloween party participants dressed as Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, Monica Lewinsky, O.J. Simpson (post Nicole), Elvis, Hitler, Ted Bundy, Osama Bin Laden, John the Baptist, Speedy Alka Seltzer, a hat rack and a giant penis, just to cite some especially memorable examples. All of them, except perhaps Speedy and the hat rack, probably would offend someone.

If you don’t wear the O.J. costume at the Goldmans’ house, don’t visit the families of 9-11 victims dressed as Osama, don’t appear at the fundamentalist Baptist’s party as John holding his head on a platter and avoid Hillary’s or Chelsea’s party when you are playing Monica, any of those costumes are legitimate in the context of Halloween. I wouldn’tt say tasteful, necessarily, but certainly not unethical at a private event that won’t include the people who would predictably find the costumes upsetting.

Professional ethics: The standards for appropriate costumes are different, however, for public officials, judges, and, I might suggest, pastors. A judge, for example, has to make sure that his or her conduct does not undermine trust in the fairness and impartiality of the justice  system, and a white judge dressing up as, say, a black criminal (in the custody of his wife, dressed as a police officer) is exactly the kind of thing the Model Judicial Code of Conduct prohibits when it says, under Canon II:

“A JUDGE SHALL AVOID IMPROPRIETY AND THE APPEARANCE OF IMPROPRIETY IN ALL OF THE JUDGE’S ACTIVITIES”

In 2004, a Louisiana judge actually did this. I wrote at the time:

“A Louisiana judge who dressed in blackface for a Halloween party (his wife was dressed as a police woman, see, and he was in a prison jump suit and handcuffs…well, I guess you had to be there) was suspended for six-months and ordered to attend sensitivity training….Ethics is often just a matter of hearing the alarm bells go off in your head (some call it a conscience) when unethical (in this case, stupid and unethical) conduct beckons. Let’s see…you’re a judge, and you’re supposed to stand for dignity, fairness and justice. Your wife has the idea of your going to a Halloween party in blackface (a party, by the way, hosted by your brother-in-law who will be dressed like Buckwheat from the “Our Gang” comedies). Hear bells yet? If not, it is hard to believe that any sensitivity training yet devised is going to fix that faulty clapper. We’ll see, but the betting here is that at next year’s party that judge is going as Charlie Chan or the Frito Bandito.”

I would say that a state representative, governor, police chief, EEOC employee, or even their children dressed in similarly provocative costumes undermine the public’s trust in the fairness and impartiality of the government and justice system, and thus in these special cases, such costumes are exceptions to the usual “anything goes” Halloween costume principle. For these officials and others who must maintain their image of trustworthiness even at times of private hi-jinx, such costumes are unethical. Everyone else, however, should be able to dress up as the Frito Bandito (does anyone even remember him?) without being subject to societal disapproval.

Blackface Ethics: Blackface is the term used to describe the stereotypical Negro make-up applied by white minstrel performers in the 19th Century, extending well into the 20th Century. It is considered a prima facie racist insult today, unless it has legitimate, non-racial entertainment purposes. For example, a white actor wearing blackface in a movie about 19th century entertainment would not be objectionable (not that some people wouldn’t object to it). A white actor wearing black make-up to play an African-American is not automatically blackface, however, though I will surely get an argument on this. Any American, I believe, can ethically dress up as the President Of the United States on Halloween. If a black American can wear a George Bush mask, a white American can wear an Obama mask—or make himself up to look like Obama, as Fred Armisen does regularly on “Saturday Night Live.” That isn’t blackface. It wasn’t blackface when Lawrence Olivier darkened his skin to play Othello, either.

Aunt Jemima, however, is different. The original Aunt Jemima is the stereotypical black “Mammy” figure that was indeed one of the characters in minstrel shows, and wearing an Aunt Jemima costume creates a rebuttable presumption that the wearer intends an insult to African-Americans. If that is not his or her intent—if he or she really believes that dressing up as Aunt Jemima is just the same as being Speedy Alka-Selzer or Tony the Tiger, a logo—then the act may not be unethical, just incredibly ignorant. I have mixed feelings about whether such a claim deserves the benefit of the doubt; for example, a man dressed in blackface could claim that he was simply costumed as Bing Crosby in the “Abraham” number from “Holiday Inn.”

Blackface, because of its direct links to slavery and racism, is an enduring taboo that whites, and especially whites in positions of public trust, have an obligation to reject. But white Americans should be able to portray blacks in the non-minstrel show context, including comedies, satire, and costume parties, just as someone of any race is free to dress as Scarlett O’Hara, Superman, or George Washington.

Association ethics: Returning to Rep. Weaver, however: she was not dressed as Aunt Jemima. She just got her photo taken with a pastor who was. That in itself does not convey unequivocal approval of the costume or its questionable message. Based on a photo alone, it is neither logical nor fair to ascribe the pastor’s conduct to her. Most people do not regard posing for a photo with someone as an endorsement of their taste in clothes or costumes. Would it have been appropriate and ethically exemplary for a public servant who recognized the dubious racial stereotype being portrayed by her pastor wearing a drag Aunt Jemima costume to say, “Sorry, pastor, as long as you’re in that get-up, I’m staying away”? Absolutely…in fact, I would say it would be as appropriate as Barack Obama telling his former pastor, Rev. Wright, “You know, as long as you are going to be damning America in your sermons, I think I’m going to avoid getting my photo taken with you. You understand.” It is not always easy to do, however. And it is not unethical to avoid the symbolic gesture of disapproval.

Facebook ethics: Putting the photo on Facebook, however, as Rep. Weaver did, does suggest, if not approval, a lack of disapproval. The dialect caption, moreover, is proof of racial sensitivity tone-deafness of epic proportions, enough to come perilously close to the point where she, and not just her dim pastor, could be fairly judged to have crossed an ethical line. The combination of the photo, its posting on the Internet, and the caption equals racial disrespect. The fact that the photo came from a Halloween party is irrelevant: she posted the photo and wrote the caption after Halloween. A public figure who places this kind of thing on her Facebook page is publishing it for the world to see and read. This could support an official ethics complaint, because it takes the Halloween costume out of the context of Halloween, and places it in the public square with her apparent approval. This is unacceptable for an elected official.

Political Ethics: If Terry, as she claims, was previously unaware that blackface had racist connotations and offended African-Americans (and others), and really thought her pastor was dressed up as “syrup”, so she was unaware of any offensive black stereotypes associated with Aunt Jemima, can she plead ignorance and stupidity as an affirmative defense to charges of being unethical? No—not as a state legislator, she can’t. If she is a legislator in the United States of America, she has an ethical obligation to know certain facts about our history, society, and culture. It is unethical for a state legislator who represents and works with African-Americans to be this naive and uninformed. It means that she is incompetent

Now that her constituents are on notice, thanks to this incident and her astounding professions of cluelessness regarding the nation’s history in race relations, that she is incompetent, it would be unethical for them to vote for her again.

7 thoughts on “Halloween Ethics! Facebook Ethics! Political Ethics! Blackface Ethics! It’s Tennessee’s Aunt Jemima Affair, the Ethics Controversy That Has Everything!

  1. Where’s the syrup ethics?!

    I just threw out some old syrup in the bottle shaped like a woman. As I read this, I thought, “Aunt Jemima? I saw the bottle in a commercial and it had an old white woman’s voice. Is she really a racist icon?” And then I remember, “No, that’s Mrs. Butterworth’s. I’m just dumb.”

    What about dressing as Uncle Ben?

  2. Pingback: Halloween Ethics! Facebook Ethics! Political Ethics! Blackface … « Ethics Find

  3. And heck, Robert Downey Jr. got award nominations from both Golden Globe and ASCAP for playing Kirk Lazarus, a white method actor so obsessed with playing a black character on-screen that he has skin-color surgery and refuses to abandon his stereotypical jargon and accent even when off-camera. (Lazarus, not Downey). That film got picketed by a number of groups, mostly protesting its portrayal of people with disabilities, but remained free (as far as I know) of charges of racism — as indeed it should have.

    • And even then, the movie wasn’t making fun of people with disabilities, but the way Hollywood portrays people with disabilities. Jesus, it’s like protesting The Producers because Springtime for Hitler is in it.

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