For Black People, Protesting Is Life & Death — Not A Costume

by Ciarra Jones
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Halloween costumes tend to reflect our cultural moment, and the summer before Halloween 2020 was defined by protest and unrest. The killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor ignited already simmering tensions concerning the relationship between Black people, white America, and police. In response, this summer, thousands of Americans marched for change. Due to this unique and contentious political moment, it may feel appropriate or even valiant to utilize Halloween to make a political statement. More specifically, it may be tempting to dress as a Black Lives Matter protester for Halloween. Don’t. For non-Black people who care about Black lives, dressing as a BLM protester may feel like a radical act of solidarity — but in fact, it is yet another form of cultural appropriation.

Let’s quickly revisit some basics: blackface, brownface, and Indigenous costumes are always wrong. The long history of the United States’ subjugation and degradation of minoritized communities through the use of racist iconography contorts marginalized races and cultures into caricatures, and then costumes of those caricatures strip subjugated communities of their humanity for the sake of entertainment. We, as a culture, know this. And yet, for some reason, Halloween costumes featuring “Black Lives Matter” iconography are on shelves in 2020. It’s a reminder that cultural appropriation is always steeped in dynamics of power: White people in America are given the power to define historical truth, misconstrue cultural narratives, and profit from marginalization.

Though avoiding blackface, brownface, and Indigenous costumes is a great start, America is clearly in need of a more dynamic conversation concerning cultural appropriation and racial sensitivity. Protest is born out of necessity: The state necessitates demonstrations when it refuses to recognize the humanity of Black people. But when you dress as a protestor for Halloween, you are erasing the connection between protest and pain. If you are not Black, you can wear the riot gear, you can make the protest signs, but you can never capture the anguish, trauma, and grief that requires Black people to lay our lives on the line to be heard.

We know those in solidarity with us may betray us when solidarity becomes financially or politically inconvenient.

As a resident of downtown LA, I live in a location where many protests and actions converge. During the summer, my apartment overflowed with the sound of impassioned voices. For weeks, as I cooked dinner I heard, “WE CAN’T BREATHE! NO JUSTICE NO PEACE! BLACK LIVES MATTER!”

One evening in the middle of June, I heard a large protest march by my apartment building. I closed my eyes, said a prayer of protection, grabbed my mask, and ran to join. My rage and pain needed to breathe. I needed to release my anguish alongside my fellow community members and those in solidarity with us, demanding a better society and more just world.

Courtesy of Ciarra Jones

As I marched down the sidewalk to catch up with the protest, two Black women stopped me. “Are you alone?” they asked me. “That’s dangerous. Walk with us.” For approximately two miles, I walked and talked with them. One of them, a lawyer, gave me a Sharpie and told me if I ended up in jail, she’d assist me. The other, V — who stood about 5 feet, 2 inches tall, with long locs and tattoos — was a formerly incarcerated Black lesbian and single mother.

This was not my first protest, but it remains by far the most contentious protest I’ve attended. A trail of 15 to 20 police cars, and 20 more motorcycles followed us while helicopters swirled overhead. Anger, fear, and frustration formed a heavy, palpable tension in the air. I was acutely aware that simply being present at the protest placed me at risk. And as a formerly incarcerated individual with two strikes, V’s bravery as a protestor struck me profoundly. As a fellow tattooed Black queer woman, I felt safe around V, and I remained with her and the lawyer for the whole protest. I found myself awed and inspired at her commitment to Black liberation, and by her compassion for me.

V’s energy and kindness stuck with me for months. Recently, I reached out to V to thank her for her warmth and compassion. “I have a record, so any moves I make have to be calculated,” she tells me. The lawyer we walked with was her cousin, who didn’t want her to protest alone. “When you’re from the streets, you never think justice is coming. You learn that you’re your own justice,” V reflects. “I fight for our community because I do not believe justice is inevitable. I fight because I believe this is what our ancestors call us to do. We must demand change. I have a son, I demand a better world for him, I want my son to survive.”

V’s bravery and her story are emblematic of what’s at stake for Black protestors. Protesting is not glamorous, and for Black people, there are always fears that cross-racial solidarity is actually just a performance. During the summer it became trendy and profitable for brands to say “Black Lives Matter,” when for years many companies refused to support the movement. We know those in solidarity with us may betray us when solidarity becomes financially or politically inconvenient.

For Black people, protesting is an act of life or death. It is not a moment in our lives, or a costume to be taken off and discarded.

“White people often have their own motives when they march with us,” V says. “I find myself critical of their presence and weary of their solidarity. Sometimes they incite violence, sometimes they are there for their own gain. I often steer clear from them at protests because I am unsure of their motives.”

Building relationships of solidarity takes time, and protesting collectively is relational work. By dressing as a protestor you are affirming the fears and the suspicions that your solidarity may actually just be a performance. We do not need people to prove they are not racist, we need people to be actively anti-racist. The work of anti-racism is more than just marching with us. It is a lifelong commitment to dismantling systems of oppression, systems that may currently benefit you. If you want to exist in solidarity with the Black community, please remember protest is not a performance, it is an outcry for reprieve from a community that continues to be subjugated and cast aside by the very country we built. Protest is not a costume, it is the unbelievably brave act of refusal.

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V’s departing words continue to reverberate in my spirit. “My son is afraid of the police. When he interacts with the police, he tells me, ‘I thought I was going to die, mom.’ I want my son to survive,” she says. She will do anything to ensure that he does. “I am willing to die fighting for Black lives.”

I do not want people to think of avoiding cultural appropriation as a list of rules — but rather, as an act of true solidarity with Black people. When we as a society contend with cultural appropriation, we are ultimately asking, what is at stake for marginalized people in America? And what we must ask, as well, is how am I, as a privileged person, able to perform marginalized identity while circumventing marginalization? We must be mindful that people’s races and cultures are not ornamental, but rather part of a rich historical legacy that others are unable to claim.

Black American culture was forged in fire, pressed on all sides by white supremacy. Black protest culture continues because white supremacy demands a response. White people misconstrue Black people as predisposed to violence, and as a result we are murdered and imprisoned mercilessly. Adding to that by playing protester, for false motives or for fun, only makes things worse. False cultural narratives kill. For Black people, protesting is an act of life or death. It is not a moment in our lives, or a costume to be taken off and discarded. We protest so that we can be seen — not hidden.