Over the holidays, the sister of a London police Constable posted photos on social media. They showed the officer – long before she was an officer – step by step as she dressed up in blackface, tribal-like beads and a colourful dress for Halloween 2006. At the time, she was a teenager who thought she was putting on a costume and didn’t understand the implications of her actions. Now she certainly does.
The photos went locally viral, the officer immediately apologized without reservation, voluntarily signed up for cultural sensitivity training and didn’t try to excuse her behavior. London’s Police Chief issued an apology and listed the ways his officers and staff will submit to further sensitivity training. Londoners are split on their reaction. Many think the response is enough. Many want the officer fired.
I side with the faction that thinks she’s learned her lesson. And once you read my confession, you’ll understand why.
Two decades before Constable Aarts’ photos were taken, I dressed up for Halloween in a costume that would now appear incredibly racist. I have photographic evidence but I’m not going to post it because I will lose control of it, its context will change and it will never go away. My “crime” was to put on white, pancake make-up and apply thick eye-liner to make myself appear Asian. I donned a black bathrobe with pink and white flowers and ballet flats, and called myself a Geisha. I know. It’s awful, mortifying and I can assure you that little thought went into it. I had no intention of being racist. Truthfully, I wanted to wear something black because I was always concerned about looking fat. In recent years I had been a merry widow and a black cat. I, too, thought I was creating a “costume”. A couple of men at the same party put on feather head dresses and loincloths and “became” Indians. We were stupid, full stop.
We had no idea of the impact we may have had on anyone else. No one said a negative word about how we were dressed – ever. In fact, I was told I “looked great”. This is how it was. I’m ashamed of it and grateful that there was no social media back then.
However, had there been social media, perhaps I would have been more sophisticated. I would have been exposed to more voices, more people who would clue me in. Businesses buzz about silos; how parts of a company work in their own little worlds., disconnected from each other. We grew up in silos and were only exposed to what we physically encountered. There was no Internet or email. As our worlds expanded, we changed our ways. I was never a racist person. My momentary ignorance isn’t indicative of who I am.
As you can imagine, I sympathize with Constable Aarts because I did something awfully similar myself, probably at around the same age as she was. This is how we learn. Let’s give her an opportunity to show that she’s grown and now has a deeper understanding of cultural issues and depictions of racism, intended or not. I figured it out and I’m certain that she will, too.