Blackface and Klan Halloween costumes in 1984: A common kneejerk excuse is, "Well, that was SO long ago, they didn’t really know any better."
However, in 1987 we moved from San Diego to Savannah, Georgia, into a beautiful old neighborhood, one of the first suburbs of historic Savannah, and everybody knew better. Those who chose to be racist knew exactly what they were doing. We had black neighbors who owned homes much nicer than ours. But we also had white neighbors who would not invite their black neighbors into their houses through the front door.
We knew then that was wrong. Even though we were "yankees," "not from around here," and had not grown up in the south, it was absolutely no mystery.
Most of the houses in the neighborhood, built in the early 1900s, had some approximation of a "servant’s bathroom," usually a decrepit toilet in a basement or outbuilding. A servant could clean the house but not use the facilities. To someone who grew up elsewhere, it was puzzling.
One black man we worked with was very hesitant to come into our home through the front door. When he was offered a drink, he asked if he could have it "to go" so as not to be seen fraternizing. In the 1990s.
The costume aspect causes reflection. What have I dressed up as on Halloween that might offend someone, then or now? A pirate, a gypsy girl, an Indian princess all saw the light of day when I was a little kid and could be seen as offensive now.
One of the three little kittens at age 13 - that only offended teenage boys who hoped we were really dressed as ladies of the night with ears and tails.
Dr. Frankenfurter from Rocky Horror Picture Show - that was equal opportunity offensive.
A pregnant girl scout - in the neighborhood built on the Gordon family farm and named after Juliette Gordon Lowe, founder of the Girl Scouts. That offended lots of people.
A human-sized tongue, complete with pompom taste buds, rickrack veins and a squirt bottle salivary gland. Offensive only to other tongues, perhaps.
But blackface and klan outfits? Costumes synonymous with oppression, hatred and lynching? The largest slave sale in the country had occurred within a few miles of where we lived. No ignorance is deep enough to declare the brandishing of such symbols as "they didn’t know any better."
One co-worker brought the complexity into the light for us. He’d grown up locally, attended an HBCU for his master’s degree and moved to the northeast for a job. He returned home, he said, because at least there he knew where he stood with people. In the north, people acted one way to his face and another to his back. In the south, the haters didn’t hide or pretend. The common response from people we met who were racists to strangers but had black acquaintances they valued was "hate ‘em as a race, love ‘em as individuals."
Can we ever transcend that fear and hatred of the "other?"