I Asked A Silly Question And Got A Lot Of Serious Answers: What I Learned From My Fifteen Minutes Of Infamy On The Internet

Thought Catalog

What a crazy forty-eight hours. 

On Wednesday, I wrote a post for Thought Catalog entitled Are People Actually Upset Over Julianne Hough Dressing Up As A Black Woman For Halloween? Its aim was to call into question what I thought might be intentionally inflammatory news coverage of the dark makeup she wore, in an effort to increase network ratings, blog traffic, social media followers, what have you. The reason I felt this way was because the stories about it made such drastic leaps in their arguments against her costume, like comparing her to a white man who dressed up as a bleeding Trayvon Martin and accusing her of using Halloween as an excuse for hate, that it was hard to take them seriously. Since I also, perhaps naively, did not perceive what Hough was wearing to be blackface, but rather “a heavy spray tan” I legitimately thought the story was over blown. After speaking to a number of people about it, black friends included, who expressed they couldn’t be bothered to devote any energy to what an actress wore to a Halloween party, I wrote the article.

By the afternoon it had been picked up by Gawker and by the time I left work, I was fielding an onslaught of angry Tweets and a stream of internet fury. As it stands today, the article has been linked to as part of a “small but indignant chorus who can’t see what all the fuss is about” on bitchmagazine.org, and has generated over one thousand comments as well as a combined fifteen hundred likes, shares and tweets.

Holy. Shit.

While these are no where near record breaking stats for an internet post, a popular feature on Buzzfeed can garner fifty thousand shares on a slow day, they were record breaking stats for me. I’ve never been faced with attention like this before and being that the majority of it was negative, it’s made me rethink my original question of are people actually upset? 

Let’s start with the answer. Turns out they are. Some were so upset that they responded by calling me an idiot, an ignorant dipshit, an asshat, one person even said he hoped I “burned on the internet”. My personal favorite comes from Sean Brody who writes “I’m kinda disappointed that she doesn’t have a regular feature called Keepin’ It Rheel where she tells white people and black people to just get over shit and just deal, you know? Like her friends do.”

Touché Sean Brody, touché.

If anything, the intensity with which people responded made me think that perhaps the way in which I asked the question was inappropriate. I took an issue that is very sensitive to some and covered it in my signature cavalier tone, which I think was a major contributor to what made people so angry. The criticism I received the most was that I was ignorant. In this case, I’m going to have to plead guilty. I had no idea that my questioning the offensiveness of a white woman dressing up like a black woman for Halloween would cause such an uproar.

Now, I’m not a complete idiot. I know that blackface is offensive. But what I understood to be blackface was specific to a practice in which white actors after the Civil War, used greasepaint to exaggerate black features and then behaved on stage in a way that made black people out to be caricatures. I also know that if someone dressed up like that today, it would be a dick move, because to trivialize what black people did, and still do go through, by turning their history into a Halloween costume is fucked up. That is not what I saw Hough doing though. I saw her dressed up as a character from her favorite internet show. However, I have since learned that many people consider ANY darkening of one’s skin to portray a person of color, a close enough reminder of that horrible history, that one commentator described seeing it as like being “kicked in the gut.”

For me, that’s a good enough reason not to do it.

But I wouldn’t know this, had I not asked the question in the first place. Many people were appalled simply by the fact that I was a white person writing about blackface. One commentator told me that after I stated “I am in fact, a white person. I’m not trying to pretend like I know what it is to be black in America and have to deal with a bunch of ignorant white nonsense on a regular basis…” I should have just stopped there. But if I had just stopped there, I would still be of the opinion that what Julianne Hough did was not a big deal. So I think we have to be able to, at the very least, have conversations about touchy subjects or they’ll never be resolved.

I also think those conversations need to be approached in a thoughtful manner. Even though I can now see what Hough wore for Halloween was insensitive, I don’t think it was her intention to “marginalize a minority” as one blogger stated or express her “deep-seated belief” that white people are of intrinsically higher value than those of color, as another proclaimed. When writers make intentionally incendiary statements just for the sake of being righteous, you end up with idiots like me going “are they serious?” with an “everyone just needs to calm the fuck down” type attitude. Unless they actually did believe that Hough was intentionally out to hurt people with her costume. In that case I would simply call them naive. But seeing as I was guilty of the same thing in questioning whether all of this was a big deal in the first place, I can hardly judge them for that.

This is also not to say that I am without fault when it comes to my own ignorance on the subject. I can imagine that my being oblivious about the issue, is offensive in and of itself. For any black person, who is confronted with racism on a regular basis, to hear that a white person can go thirty-five years without even knowing about a certain facet of it, has got to be frustrating to say the least. So despite all of the backlash I’ve received, I’m still glad I wrote the post because in the end, I learned something.

It’s possible other people did too. I’m not trying to exaggerate the importance of what I wrote, which was essentially a flippant commentary on a fleeting news story, but it did stir legitimate debate. Beyond the comments that were purposefully intended to inflame emotions, you can see people on opposing sides of the issue, finding common ground. Myself included.

So at the end of the day, what did my fifteen minutes of internet infamy ultimately teach me? That everyone just wants to be heard and the more we listen, the better off we’ll be.

In other news, it’s going to be seriously awkward transitioning back into writing stories about my cat after this.

  • http://fuckyouihateyou.com Theo Justice

    Kelly,

    As a brown person who has been at the short end of the racist stick during many moments of my formative years – I want to say that I applaud the way you’ve handled all of this and I don’t put you at fault for voicing legitimate questions and concerns. This is indeed how we learn. We have to first be ignorant in order to later be informed.

    With that said, what you did was not just learn something, you taught something to others who read what you write and who may have had needed the same bit of learning.

    Good work and keep the cat stories moving.

    • Kelly

      Thanks so much for commenting. It’s been really nice to hear everyone’s side. In fact, I sent the follow up to a lot of the people who were very mad at me on Twitter and after reading it, they’ve since shown support and we’ve engaged in deeper discussions. Really cool.

      Thanks for reading!

  • T Dawg (fine, not my real name)

    “For me, that’s a good enough reason not to do it.”

    This right here is where I think you nail it. Truthfully, I read your post and my first thought was, “aw, shit, maybe I don’t like her as much as I thought I did”. Then I remembered that I’m essentially a flawed piece of shit who’s trying to her best and recognizes that nearly everyone else is undoubtedly better than me. You’ve put yourself out there in a way I’d be far too afraid to do, but you’re still open to dialogue and I think that is admirable. . For me, issues of race, gender, socio-economics are far too complex for me to truly comprehend and comment on in an intellectual way. And that’s where I sit with this issue: I am come from such a privileged position that I can’t reasonably comment on it so I’ll bow out and say that I think all costumes that appropriate race and/or culture should be avoided. It’s not my place to make those things the theme of my Halloween merriment; therefore, I will abstain. Ultimately, it’s not that big of a deal and that’s why, for me, it’s so easy to avoid.

    I strongly suspect Hough meant no ill will, but she made an ill-informed decision. You can dress up as a tv character without crossing into black/tan face. I strongly believe the Trayvon Martin costume is considerably more offensive. Holy shit, what were those kids thinking?

    And FFS, talking about this isn’t offensive. Talking about it is awesome and necessary. We’ll never get it right 100% of the time.I respect you so much for being open to other interpretations. Discussion is a good thing.

    PS the actress who plays “Crazy Eyes” is phenomenally talented. She is amazing.

    • Kelly

      Whew! Girl, you need to go easy on yourself! I guess we both do, huh? I’m definitely seeing the point that it’s just too hard to come from a background like ours and understand the feelings that stem from racial insensitivity. Which, as you said, is why talking about it is necessary. Thanks for taking the time to read and share your opinion. And the show is awesome.

  • http://www.chimerikal.com Erika

    I didn’t see any of the original pieces you’re referring to, but I think this was heartfelt and well-written! I think that part of the reason that so many people are afraid to talk about race is because of the reactions people have… Meaning: a lot of white people keep their mouths shut, even if they don’t understand something or are curious to know more, because people might flame them or harass them or call them stupid or any number of names. I think the thing is to get to the bottom of what’s being asked, to have a spirit of genuine curiosity and wanting to understand, and for people to understand that talking about it helps, but perhaps shaming people does not? Anyway, I know I could write a novel myself on all of this, but I just want to say that this is fascinating and it sounds like you are handling it really well! :)

    • Kelly

      Thanks for your input Erika. As always, you keep it honest, supportive and fun. That’s why I like working with you!

  • http://damiengaleone.com/blog/ Damien

    K – I didn’t find anything you wrote offensive. You asked a question about a topic, which is something you are more than welcome to do. Frankly, I think a lot of people get offended on the internet just to get offended. You didn’t put on the fucking costume and mock someone, you just wondered if people were really getting irked about it or not. Nothing wrong with that. So don’t be so hard on yourself. For Rheel (ha!).

    No shit – Keep writing, keep being funny and keep being your usual funny, quirky self.

    • Kelly

      I was hoping you would comment because I feel like we have similar backgrounds and often share the same perspective, so I was curious to see what you would think of this whole thing. Yeah, definitely expected some comments that would be intentionally aggressive in an effort to get a rise out of everyone involved in the conversation but nothing like what I encountered. Who knew? Well now, I do, but it was pretty cool to see so many thoughts on the subject.

  • http://damiengaleone.com/blog/ Damien

    K – to be honest, I have purposefully avoided controversial topics like these because I know how these things can spiral out of control and become really unpleasant. I would hate to post something I thought was being lightly humorous on a controversial issue and find myself the focus of angry internet people. That being said, I really think that a lot of people were overreacting to your post. I just didn’t think it warranted such a harsh reaction. And, seriously, keep up the great work. I love reading your blog! D

  • http://www.wanderlyn.com/ Eternally WanderLyn

    While I am aware that black face is offensive, I didn’t see Julian Hough’s costume as an intentional attempt to turn black people into caricatures the way black face was originally used. I saw it as an attempt to emulate a very talented actress and her character. She wasn’t aware of the implications of her costume and made a bad choice. But when people do make these kinds of mistakes out of ignorance or naivete, we need to educate them. We don’t need to attack them or call them names, as some people did towards you. We need to explain to them the reason behind those strong sentiments and why it is racially insensitive or inappropriate. We need to be able to have an open discourse about these sensitive subjects so that people who are truly unaware can learn and grow.

    • RheelDaze

      My thoughts exactly. Thanks for that.

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  • Rachel

    Kelly – I love your blog. With this article you proved that you are not only hilarious, but also able to cover serious topics and see multiple sides of arguments – something a lot of “internet folk” are not able or willing to do.
    Now onto a more serious topic – I hope you will still have a Slackers post for today because work is really slow right now! 😉

  • Kelly

    Ha! Rachel, thank you! Unfortunately, this has taken up quite a bit if my time so I hope you’ll be just as bored for the coming installment next Friday.

  • pedro

    my great grand father was killed by a native american. I not only find native american costumes inappropriate because of the tragedy my family has suffered but also turn the channel in disgust any time I see Steve Martin with that god damn arrow through his head joke!

  • dale

    Kelly:
    Love your blog and didn’t fin anything offensive in what you wrote. I continue to be stunned by reactions to events. I thing most people mean not harm in the things they do. The fact that others find offense at the drop of a hat means the problem lies with them, not those who unknowingly set them off. People need to relax. I chose to believe that Julianne was paying tribute to an actress/character she admired, nothing more. I saw lots of kids dressed up like military people last night. I am sure they were paying tribute too, not trying to piss off pacifists.

  • Beedee

    KR: “For me, that’s a good enough reason not to do it.
    But I wouldn’t know this, had I not asked the question in the first place”
    Right on Kelly! You not only asked the question but listened to the answer. It may have started in fun but you got the Rheel feelings in the responses.
    KR: “So at the end of the day, what did my fifteen minutes of internet infamy ultimately teach me? That everyone just wants to be heard and the more we listen, the better off we’ll be.”
    And that and the conversation itself, is worth all of the storm of haters & lovers. I’m more interested in what more you have to say!!

  • Rochelle Migliore

    I’m so glad you keep your sense of humor about you :) I hope you give yourself time to let this all settle in, things like this can take a lot out of you.

  • Kelly

    Thank you Tante Barbel!