Arts » Arts Stories & Interviews

Costume Drama: A Flood of Social Media Scandals Sparks a Conversation on Race and Representation


  • Shutterstock
Last fall, talk show host Megyn Kelly was fired from NBC after saying on-air that she believes it’s OK to wear blackface for Halloween. In February, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam dominated national headlines when a photo that appears to be him wearing blackface emerged online. The photo had been published in a medical school yearbook 30 years prior and only recently resurfaced in the digital age. Not to be outdone, the state’s Attorney General Mark Herring also admitted to wearing blackface at a party when he was an undergraduate at the University of Virginia. The same week, the luxury brand Gucci faced backlash when a sweater mimicking blackface appeared in its online store.

It’s baffling to think that in 2019 so many public figures would have such embarrassing gaffes that threaten to topple their careers. After years of witnessing the struggle for diversity and inclusion, haven’t white people learned anything?

Even in the melting pot of Texas, the list of people donning insensitive costumes on social media ranges from city council members and educators to students and even an editor from the Houston-based online arts publication Glasstire. While most of these incidents only make the local news, hastily reported and soon forgotten, they reflect a larger issue stirring debate across the country.

When it was announced that Brandon Zech, one of Glasstire’s senior editors, would be taking over as publisher in June, many from San Antonio’s artistic community were quick to point out that in October of 2016, Zech dressed as the border wall in a photograph posted to Glasstire’s Instagram account.

In the photo, Zech wears what appears to be a stack of bricks around his upper body. An unidentified female wearing a dark mustache and two tiny sombreros on the end of antennas (maybe a reference to her “alien” status?) is clinging to Zech’s shoulders. Both individuals are plastered with ear-to-ear smiles. “They will pay for the wall!” reads the caption. One commenter responds with “fun times!” before a number of familiar artists start tearing into the post and putting its offensive nature in perspective.

Among those commenters was Raul Gonzalez, a San Antonio-based artist known for his paintings of construction workers and laborers. A son of Mexican immigrants, Gonzalez is keenly aware of representations of Mexican-Americans in popular culture. His own work could be described as dignified depictions of Mexican-Americans and their domestic spaces.

“I was really surprised that Glasstire didn’t have the sense to think this would be offensive to a large pool of their patrons,” Gonzalez told the Current. “I mean, shit, we’re in fuckin’ Texas! A professional group should have the better judgement to stop the post before it happened.”

Indeed, Glasstire’s Instagram post seems especially jarring coming from a fine arts publication whose writers are expected to discern meaning in symbols and visuals more-so than the general public. As one of the few statewide publications dedicated to visual arts, artists, students and the general public alike rely on Glasstire to promote their events or keep them informed about local art news. For 18 years, Glasstire has served this purpose, and this summer its founder and current publisher, Rainey Knudson, is handing over the reins to Zech.

Kristel Orta-Puente, a San Antonio-based Chicana artist and photographer, says she was “completely disappointed” by Glasstire’s border wall photo and that, beyond an apology, she would like to see Glasstire hire a more diverse staff so that mistakes like this don’t happen again.

“Obviously, [the Instagram post] wasn’t something that they just did randomly,” she said. “They literally thought about that. They put that together and nobody there said ‘Hey, that could possibly be offensive.’”
  • Shutterstock
Although the post was removed shortly after being made public, a screenshot circulated on Facebook, drawing more criticism from the community. A few days later, Knudson posted an apology to the Glasstire site:

“This week there was an unfortunate post on the Glasstire Instagram account. An image meant to ridicule Donald Trump’s rhetoric of ‘bad hombres’ and building a wall along the border with Mexico was received by some viewers not as a satire of Trump, but as an insensitive commentary on Mexicans and Latino immigrants crossing the border. That was not our intention in the least. I removed the post from Instagram and apologized for it. I’m very sorry to have fanned the fires of this terrible election cycle.”

The apology did not go over well. In the comments section, visitors voiced their displeasure while Knudson responded to each comment with awkward and defensive statements. It was clear that the artistic community across the state had been hurt and that Glasstire could not pinpoint where things took a dive.

While Knudson claims the costume was meant as a satire that ridicules President Trump’s rhetoric, the focus of the costume, and the image itself, was solely on the stereotypical depiction of a Mexican and not Trump. Like many other Halloween costumes gone wrong, the costume was a coordinated effort requiring two people to complete the getup. The photo depicts not just two people in costume but two people in the midst of action, a sort of performance showing how undocumented immigrants climb over a wall. With so much thought going into the costume, it’s difficult to understand the lack of consideration for how it would be received by the public.

After the announcement of his new role was made public back in February, the Current reached out to Zech in hopes of doing an interview to discuss the future of Glasstire. Zech politely declined, citing his busy schedule.

Over the past few weeks, Knudson has been on a farewell lecture tour, making stops at museums and universities across the state, including the University of Texas at San Antonio on March 21. In her lecture titled “Art, Media, and the Digital Dumpster Fire,” Knudson talked about the evolution of Glasstire as a “scrappy start-up” in 2001 to its current status as a regionally recognized online arts publication. This writer asked Knudson to comment on the criticism she has received for posting the border wall costume photo and how that experience has shaped the future of Glasstire.

“As a result of that, we realized that we had really fucked up,” Knudson responded to a room full of UTSA students. “I was the one who posted that image. I thought it was funny. ... It was right before the election and, to be honest with you, it had never entered my mind that Donald Trump would win the election.”

While it seems Knudson is still hung up on the idea that the costume was a critique of Trump and his “rhetoric,” she did say that Glasstire has made a specific and conscious effort to address the work of Latino artists across Texas. She also revealed that the publication has begun raising funds to start publishing bilingual articles, a process that has been a year and a half in the making.

“We don’t want to feel like we’re ticking boxes, and we don’t want to feel like we’re just looking to fill certain ratios,” Knudson added. “But the fact of the matter is if you want to be diverse, then you need to think about it. We have to think, ‘Well, wait a minute, who are we not paying attention to?’ ... If that means that a white guy doesn’t get coverage then that means that a white guy doesn’t get coverage. We made an explicit effort to try to make sure we have diverse authors and try to make sure we cover diverse artists.”

In the two years since the photo was first posted to Instagram, public outrage has waned and business has gone on as usual for Glasstire.

“What I have noticed since the incident [and] failed apology is that San Antonio’s presence on Glasstire has grown, more so than any other city in Texas,” local artist Gonzalez said. “More artists from San Antonio have appeared as guest artists on their Weekly Top 5 videos.”

While Glasstire has mostly managed to overcome its PR crisis, and perhaps even some good has come from the controversy, a quick Google search on the topic of insensitive costumes reveals that similar incidents continue to play out every year across the state. Call it a case of “same script, different cast.”

Despite newspapers and magazines warning people about potentially offensive costumes every Halloween, people apparently aren’t getting the message. In 2016, the University of Texas at Austin issued a guide to help students avoid offensive costumes, but it was largely seen as a joke. In previous years, some fraternities had been known to throw off-campus “Border Patrol” parties where students come dressed in sombreros, serapes or construction gear.

Last October in College Station, Amanda Green, at the time a candidate for the College Station Independent School District board, made headlines when a year-old photo of her and her husband made the rounds on social media. Much like Glasstire’s Instagram photo, Green’s shot brought accusations of racism. In the photo, Green is seen dressed as the American flag, while her husband, who is down on one knee, is dressed as the football player Colin Kaepernick with an Afro wig and red jersey. Both individuals are smiling at the camera, proudly displaying their costumes at what appears to be a Halloween party.

In an interview with KBTX news, an apologetic and teary-eyed Green said her intentions were never to offend anyone.

“Honestly, our costume choice was solely based on that it was the pop culture phenomenon of the moment,” she said. “There was no racial motivation, there was no other motivation other than it was literally what was on every headline and every story and one of the most popular costumes of 2017, and that’s why we chose to wear that. … By no way were we disparaging a cause, and if anyone is offended by that, we are deeply sorry.”

While Green claimed in the interview that she doesn’t believe in kneeling for the flag, she didn’t address why she chose to ignore the United States Flag Code, which explicitly states the flag should never be used as apparel. She also dismissed the fact that Kaepernick kneels to protest police brutality and racial injustice.

“I believe in the American flag,” Green said. “I don’t believe in kneeling for the National Anthem or the American flag and that’s my right as freedom of speech, but in no way was I trying to denigrate his cause by doing that.”

Following the scandal, Green, a first-time candidate, was eventually elected to the College Station school board Place 2 seat.

Last October, Dallas City Council member Jennifer Staubach Gates displayed a lapse in judgement when she posted a picture of herself to Facebook wearing a thick mustache and a sombrero at a Halloween party. The photo reveals that Gates and two other friends are supposed to be the “ingredients” of a margarita. Gates, who had been touted as a possible mayoral candidate, received backlash when the Dallas Observer published the photo on its website.

“I posted a picture on my private personal page of my colleagues and I dressed as a lime in a margarita,” Gates wrote in a statement to TV station NBCDFW. “I am sorry if I offended anyone for being a lime in a margarita.”

A lime with a thick, black mustache, a serape and sombrero to be exact.

Gates’ photo prompted a Dallas Observer columnist to write, “Do white people dress up like other ethnic groups as a way to make friends with them? Like, if they get invited to a black wedding, do they show up in blackface? Nope.”

To be fair, Gates’ costume was not the racist 1960s cartoon character known as the Frito Bandito, as several Dallas newspapers reported, but it came pretty close. (All she was missing was the bullet belt.)
  • Frito Lay
Between 1967 and 1971, the Frito Lay company used the Frito Bandito as its official mascot. The mascot had an exaggerated Mexican accent and would steal your Fritos. Funny, right? The character perpetuated the idea of the Mexican bandit, a common stereotype from the Mexican Revolution and early 20th Century. In 1971, Frito Lay stopped using the character after receiving pressure from advocacy groups, including the Involvement of Mexican-Americans in Gainful Endeavors (IMAGE), based in San Antonio.

Although Latinos are the largest minority group in the U.S., they are still severely under-represented in popular media. Negative stereotypes or one-dimensional representations of Latinos like the heavily accented and naughty domestic workers on Will and Grace, Flipping Out and Family Guy persist. On late-night television, Jimmy Kimmel ridicules his mustachioed Mexican-American security guard, Guillermo Rodriguez, on a nightly basis.

Let’s be real for a moment. It’s not really the costumes that people find most offensive. It’s the complete disregard for the issues and people that each individual mentioned here is embodying.

In each of the examples mentioned above, white people are seen laughing and smiling, seemingly finding joy in the ability to mock people of color.
What a privilege it is to not know what it feels like to cross the U.S.-Mexico border in hopes of finding a better life. What a privilege it is to not have to fear sending your black children out into the world where they’ll be pegged as thugs or criminals. And what a privilege it is to be so far detached from these realities that you would even consider it as inspiration for a Halloween costume.
  • 20th Century Fox
Some people will continue to ask what’s wrong with dressing up like a Mexican or your favorite athlete who protests racial injustice. After all, there is nothing to see here, just good people having fun. But it feels like a remnant of a not-too-distant past when white people, in the most extreme cases, gathered in lynch mobs and participated in the killings of thousands of African Americans and Mexicans.

In the 19th century and first half of the 20th century, before the existence of social media, postcards often served a similar purpose, allowing people to share photos of their vacation spots and keep updated with the “status” of their friends. And it was on postcards that lynching imagery was often shared with the public and used to intimidate, mock and ridicule communities of color throughout the South and Southwest parts of the country. And in these photos, white people sneered and smirked, some smiling ear-to-ear, as they proudly displayed the bodies of African Americans or Mexicans like wild game. The message here was clear: white people are the victors, blacks and Mexicans are the conquered.

There is power and meaning in visuals. Let’s use these tools for the advancement of our communities and not to disparage poor people, or immigrants, or people of color.

“In many cases, we’re talking about the way in which struggle, or protest, or the histories of racism and injustice are mocked and made into a joke, or made into a source of pleasure,” said David J. Leonard, a professor of comparative ethnic studies and American studies at Washington State University and author of the book Playing While White: Privilege and Power on and off the Field.

“Yes, the history of blackface is unique given its connection to the history of slavery, or Jim Crow and lynching,” he said. “But someone dressing up as the wall, given not only what the wall symbolizes, but also the way that the wall injures … to see someone chanting about the wall at a sporting event or to dress up as the wall is to make light of, to find pleasure in someone else’s pain. Ultimately, if the costume is about mocking or dehumanizing and not caring about someone else’s experience, then it’s doing the work of racism.”

He adds that while communities of color have always been mocked, there are certain periods throughout history where these sort of acts become more common. Clearly, social media is partly to blame, but so is the current political climate, in which whites perceive a certain loss of power to communities of color or immigrants.

When it comes to the question of intent, Leonard said there are a couple of things we must consider.

“If two people are walking by, and one person steps on your foot accidentally and the other purposely steps on your foot, yes, there are differences in how we interpret them, and intent matters, but they both cause pain and they will both leave a mark,” he said. “We should talk about what we need to do to not leave a mark that continues the pain and inequality that’s central to racism.”

He believes that each one of these costumes is advancing a particular narrative. The Kaepernick costume advances a narrative that imagines him and those who demand racial justice as unpatriotic. A border wall costume imagines Mexicans as undesirable.

“We need to determine what sort of narratives are there and we need to determine what sort of lies we are telling ourselves so that we don’t have to confront the realities of racism,” he said.

Most importantly, Leonard argued that we can’t make it exclusively about individuals but that we should instead focus on the root causes of institutional racism, which in turn lead to individual expressions of racism.

“We have to reckon with a history of harm, a history of perpetuating harm,” he said. “So, when I hear people say, ‘I didn’t know this history,’ my immediate response is, ‘What are you doing to change that history?’ Are you demanding that our K-through-12 curriculums address these histories? Are you demanding that we develop racial literacy among our communities? Are we investing in things like ethnic studies that teach these histories or are you opposing them? Are you pushing for divestment from the very tools that will foster change? ... Are you having conversations between the connections between individual acts of racism and institutional racism? If we simply punish individuals and we don’t deal with the root causes and consequences, then we’re engaging in an exercise that one, lets white Americans off the hook. And, two, we’re engaging in a practice that will invariably lead us to the same place.”

Stay on top of San Antonio news and views. Sign up for our Weekly Headlines Newsletter.

Support Local Journalism.
Join the San Antonio Current Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the San Antonio Press Club for as little as $5 a month.