Jay Z Adds Another Problem To Add To His 99: Barneys

Host Michel Martin talks with the Beauty Shop ladies about the thin line between creative and offensive Halloween costumes. They also discuss claims of racially profiling by retailer Barneys.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now it's time to take a visit to the Beauty Shop. That's where our panel of women commentators and journalists get a fresh cut on the week's hot topics. Sitting in the chairs for a new 'do this week are Bridget Johnson, the Washington, D.C. editor for PJ Media - that's a conservative-libertarian news and commentary site - with us in our Washington, D.C. studios. With us from New York, Demetria Lucas. She's a contributing editor for TheRoot.com and the author of "A Belle In Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life." Also in New York, Laura Martinez. She's the senior editor at CNET en Espanol. She's also the founder of the blog "Mi blog es tu blog." Welcome back, everybody. Thank you so much for joining us.

BRIDGET JOHNSON: Great to be here.

DEMTRIA LUCAS: Thank you for having us.

LAURA MARTINEZ: Thanks for having us.

MARTIN: Now I realize that there are a lot of important things going on in the world, but Halloween has become the second biggest holiday in this country in terms of spending, interestingly enough, and it seems like every year people push the boundaries with their Halloween costumes. This year's no exception. Julianne Hough from "Dancing with the Stars" dressed as the African-American character Crazy Eyes from the Netflix series "Orange Is the New Black." Now Hough, who is white, used makeup to darken her skin and got a lot of pleasant - not very positive feedback on this. And she's apologized for her costume. She says she didn't mean to be disrespectful or demeaning.

But that's not the only one that's been in the news. I mean, there were two white guys who showed up on social media. One was dressed as Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman. The one dressed as Trayvon was wearing blackface and a hoodie with fake blood, and then - and the other guy was, you know, photographed, you know, pointing a gun at his head. And then there were these three guys who decided to dress as injured crew members from the Asiana Airline flight that crashed earlier this year. So I just have to ask everybody - Bridget Johnson, you know, how far is too far? Should we just sort of take a - just give everybody a kind of politically correct pass for Halloween and just not talk about it? What do you think?

JOHNSON: Well, you know, you don't want to get too far with the PC police on this. But I think that all representations of murder victims and disaster victims are probably in the inappropriate category, and you shouldn't go there. And, you know, one of my first thoughts with the Julianne Hough costume, too, was, you don't need to put on any sort of blackface or any sort of skin color to represent a character. You know, for instance, if a black man wanted to be Dracula for Halloween, it would be conveyed with the fangs and the cape and etc. You know, he doesn't need to smear anything white on his face.

MARTIN: But, you know, you raise an interesting question. Would people be equally upset?

JOHNSON: Probably not.

MARTIN: I mean, if, you know - who was on "Dancing with the Stars"? Like, who are some of our favorites who are on "Dancing with the Stars"? Like - help me out here. Boxer - Sugar Ray Leonard decided that he wanted to be Dracula and smeared on whiteface, would we care?

JOHNSON: He would be a hot Dracula either way.

MARTIN: He would be a hot Dracula either way. So you think the blackface is too far?

JOHNSON: You shouldn't need to do it. And - but one of the interesting debates that I have seen, though, is whether Obama masks are good for Halloween. You know, for example, one local reporter, on Friday night, to a party here, he dressed as 404 Obamacare - one of the hottest political costumes around this year - had the scrubs, wrote 404 on the front and put on an Obama mask, and he was white. And so that was tweeted, and about half the comments were saying that, oh, he put on blackface. That wasn't appropriate. Well, presidential masks, for everybody, you know, have been a longtime tradition. So, you know, how far do we go with that?

MARTIN: I have a George W. Bush - I have a George H. W. Bush mask as part of my collection. I just want to be very clear. Laura Martinez, what do you think?

MARTINEZ: Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: Hi.

MARTINEZ: No, I was just going to say, I mean, probably, as the only non-American in this panel, I mean, sometimes I have to be very careful with what I said and what I think about these things. But, for example, I have been blogging a lot about costumes that said things like, you can look like Zapata, or, you can look like a real Mexican this Halloween. Quite frankly, it doesn't offend me. Most of the times, they're just hilarious or really funny. I found this costume in a Spanish - like, based in Spain - website of a very blonde and blue-eyed guy wearing a very strange sombrero that doesn't look Mexican at all and a poncho and it says, you can look like Mexican for only 14 euros. I, quite frankly, find it honestly funny, but I can understand that the sensibilities in this country and - especially regarding to race - can be very, very delicate issue and not something to laugh about.

MARTIN: Demetria, what do you think?

LUCAS: You know, I just don't understand, Michel, how, in, like, 2013, people don't know that blackface is off-limits. Like, we go through this every single Halloween. It's been written about. It's been overdone. You know, I think Ted Danson, 20 years ago, you know, he showed up with Whoopi Goldberg in blackface. There was a huge conversation about it then. There's no excuse for adults not to know the history of blackface, how demeaning, how degrading, how stereotypical, how hurtful blackface it is to African-Americans, and to still, in 2013, dress up. Like, there's just no excuse for this.

MARTIN: Tell me why, though, for people who don't know. I mean, you forget, 1 out of 10 Americans was foreign-born. So maybe people don't know that history. So tell us, briefly, if you can, why it is that blackface is the third rail of Halloween costuming?

LUCAS: I mean, you know, it goes back to, you know, theater in, I guess, like, the 1800s, 1900s. I mean, people would put on - instead of hiring black people because of course, they couldn't be professional - they would put on - white actors would put on black paint, and they'd do exaggerated lips and exaggerated eyes. And they would act out stereotypes of African-Americans. And a lot of people, for whatever reason, still believe that that's how African-Americans exist, like, you know, being lazy, watermelon-eating, pickaninnies, you know, crazy hair, the exaggerated lips, always joking, buffoonery. And that's still associated with black people, and that's definitely more so associated with blackface.

So in 2013, to go smear some paint on your face, like, it just doesn't make sense. If you want to be a black character - like Julianna Hough, for instance, like, the character that she was portraying was Crazy Eyes from "Orange Is the New Black." She has very distinct hair, a very distinct outfit. It's prison garb. Between the hair and the prison garb, everyone would've got, like, oh, you're doing "Orange Is the New Black." Are you Crazy Eyes? There was no need for the extra paint.

MARTIN: OK, so what's your take on this? Is the - just skip the racial - is the blackface the dividing line or is it just racial and ethnic costumes, period, you think should be the dividing line? Demetria, I'll ask you this.

LUCAS: I mean, I think if you want to dress up as a black person and you are nonblack, just take the predominant features. You know, if you want to do Lil Wayne, then, you know, do some locks. You know, get a sharpie and cover yourself in tattoos. I think it's also important that if we're going to race things, that we should stay away from stereotypes. You know, we don't need to see another, you know, a Blood or a Crip gang members. We don't need to see any, you know, just all-purpose ghetto black girl, just calling yourself a black girl and, you know, the gold teeth and the exaggerated outfits. But stick with specific people, and let's try not to, you know, offend as many people as possible with our costumes.

MARTIN: OK. We'll get - OK, Laura, final thought?

MARTINEZ: I just wanted to jump right in because it's true, and I understand that perfectly. But, for example, my boyfriend and I went to a Halloween party a week ago - sorry, a year ago - and I saw a couple of people dressed up as French, right, wearing a beret and carrying a baguette. Another one was actually coming in with a madeleine on their hand. It's funny how nobody thought that was stereotypical. But I guess it's true that when it comes to Indians or when it comes to Mexicans or when it comes to blacks, that it's a completely different conversation. I honestly don't think my boyfriend, who is French, got offended because someone came carrying a baguette, showing that it's a stereotypical French person.

MARTIN: Bridget.

JOHNSON: I was just thinking, you know, of one costume that I saw on a site that was pointed out as being stereotypical and racist. And it was an Arab costume, and it was a white thobe and it was the red and white Saudi headdress. And it came complete with the goatee, which automatically made me think of King Abdullah. And I thought, you know, what a great costume that would make, for example, for a woman to wear and then hold the steering wheel. You know, make a costume - you can mock a regime. You can mock, you know, ideas without mocking an entire people. So...

MARTIN: Maybe it depends on how much power you think these people have. I mean, because...

MARTINEZ: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...I don't know too many negative stereotypes about the French. I don't - that they have to...

JOHNSON: Right.

MARTIN: ...That they are burdened by.

JOHNSON: Right.

MARTINEZ: Right.

MARTIN: You know what I mean? Being, like, great lovers, great food, you know - whatever. I mean, you might - it might be a stereotype, but is your life negatively affected by the fact that people think that. You know, I think maybe that's the line - I don't know. So let's move on to talking about stereotyping. Let's talk about some bad shopping experiences that have been in the news. Like, several African-Americans have accused Barneys and Macy's in New York of racial profiling.

They say that police or security stopped them after they made expensive purchases and accused them of theft or fraud, and the New York state attorney general is investigating the claims. Now one of we're talking about Jay-Z in the middle of all this is that he's working on a limited-edition clothing and jewelry line with Barneys. But a lot of the people saying, OK, you know, what's up with that, given that, you know, if these people are treating these customers badly, why are you engaged with them? So, Demetria, you wrote about this for The Root, and what do you think? You said Jay-Z shouldn't be the focus of this.

LUCAS: Yeah, I feel like, you know, the young man was stopped or arrested, you know, for his $350 purchase - legal purchase with his own money, which Chase finally backed up. But the conversation quickly went from, oh, shopping while black, this is an issue. And then we just, like, fast-forwarded right past that, zero to 90, to all of the sudden talking about Jay-Z. And I understand Jay-Z makes the story a little sexier. It's a, you know, mega-celebrity tie-in. But, you know, he's on the cover of newspapers, and all of a sudden, everyone's discussing what should we be doing - what Jay-Z should be doing about his Barneys tie-in.

But no one's really discussing what's the core issue here, which is racism. Like, black people - this shopping while black isn't new. Black people have always had, you know, quote and unquote, unique encounters while shopping - everything from, you know, being followed around the store, you know, the ask for ID with a credit card, pointing you to the sales rack, getting asked, you know, whether - if you're wearing a coat and purse, do you work here. But we're not talking about that. We're talking about Jay-Z, and Jay-Z is not the core issue with shopping while black.

MARTIN: Bridge, what do you think?

JOHNSON: Yeah, I worked retail loss prevention in college when I was a criminology major, and I made about 200 busts during that time. But the one thing that you learn is there is no profile to somebody who comes in...

LUCAS: Thank you.

JOHNSON: ...And shop lifts. Or - the only profile that I ever really saw - the people who were doing credit card fraud was if they came in, they indiscriminately started grabbing a bunch of expensive stuff, piled it on and then handed the card over with a smile. Then you'd call the clerk and say check with the company. You know, call the company first.

MARTIN: So why does this persist? Because I've heard experts like yourself - people who've been in the field themselves say this over and over again. So why does it persist?

JOHNSON: I think there's something going on deeper here, especially when you link it with the Macy's case with the "Treme" star. If it turns out as Barneys and Macy's said, that none of their employees called in this person as suspicious, you know, what is there going on with the NYPD doing some sort of operation in the stores, being called by people within the stores, etc., with such scant evidence. It's - so I think it's a much wider thing, and it probably goes back to the police department.

MARTIN: Before we go, I do want to ask about the rapper Kanye West. He's working hard as the president of the Kim K. fan club, now engaged to reality star Kim Kardashian. I know this is on top of everybody's list. I know this is, like, the kind of thing you wake up in the morning thinking about, right? So I do have to ask because yesterday, in an interview with Ryan Seacrest, he compared his fiancee to first lady Michelle Obama. He said the first lady has been on the cover of Vogue twice and Kardashian is still waiting for the call, but that she is really the first lady of fashion. So, Demetria, I'm sorry. I have to give you this one. Yes or no? Is Kim K. more influential than Michelle Obama when it comes to fashion?

LUCAS: You know, Kanye West and his delusions of grandeur that are now extending to his fiancee, like - I really can't with him right now. But to credit, I actually do think that - it's weird. Are we talking about quantity or are we talking about quality of influence? Because Kim K. does have a global reach. We can't deny that. But, you know, quality of her reach versus Michelle Obama - there's no question. Michelle Obama blows her out the water.

MARTIN: OK. We'll leave it there for now. Demetria Lucas is a contributing editor to TheRoot.com, with us from our bureau in New York. Laura Martinez is founder of the blog "Mi blog es tu blog" - you know this is one of my favorite blog names of all time. I'll just say that whenever I can. I'll just say it to say it. Bridget Johnson is the Washington, D.C. editor for PJ Media - that's a conservative-libertarian news and commentary site - with us in Washington, D.C. Thank you all so much.

LUCAS: Thanks, Michel.

JOHNSON: Thank you, Michel.

MARTINEZ: Thank you, Michel.

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