There's been a lot of discussion this year around racist and appropriative Hallowe'en costumes, in no small part due to an anti-racist ad campaign by Ohio University's Students Teaching About Racism in Society. The ads feature images of people of colour holding up pictures of white people in racist costumes depicting stereotypes of the POC's culture (e.g., a white woman in black face, a "geisha girl", an "Arab terrorist"). The ads read very simply: "We're a culture, not a costume. This is not who I am and this is not okay." They are very strong ads and predictably there has been both a strong showing of support for them and a considerable degree of backlash. They also seem to have stimulated or just been part of more discussion about racism and cultural appropriation than I've ever seen at this time of year. (Which is not to say that cultural appropriation isn't a year-round phenonomenon!)
After a friend of mine posted the above pictures on her Facebook, a friend of hers took issue with the fact that all the people who were wearing racist costumes were white - she felt that this was an expression of racism in and of itself, that only white people could or would be racist. After being challenged about the context of white privilege, she rebutted that white privilege is specific to certain countries (debatable in our ever-globalizing world), but that cultural appropriation can happen anywhere in the world and that racism and cultural appropriation are different issues. My friend asked me to weigh in on the discussion at this point, but before I could get my thoughts together another person brought up the fact that white privilege is maintained through constructing stereotypes of POC and different cultures, which these types of costumes reinforce while Whiteness remains invisible.
(Indeed, the only counter-example of a White stereotype that was brought up was that of "white trash", which was pointed out to be A) a classist stereotype, and B) racist in the sense of it represented a violation of Whiteness by reducing a White person to the level of a POC - no such racial modfier would be necessary to refer to Black, Latino, or Native people as "trash".)
All of this captured my own thoughts quite well, so I never did end up participating in the discussion, but a couple of days later I had my chance again in the comments on this Sociological Images post, Fetishizing People of Color: The Downside of Positive Stereotypes, about the desire of (ostensibly) white people to have friends of colour on the basis of how interesting and exciting these (exotic) others must be. A comment conversation had arisen over the nature of white people and White culture and whether there really is anything to the latter, which might explain why white people are so driven to appropriate elements of other cultures. I wrote up a comment on this topic which, although somewhat convoluted, seemed to finally capture my thoughts and which was fairly well-received in the thread as well, suggesting I'd hit the mark. What follows is a re-writing of that comment for a more generic context (the original was specifically in reply to another commenter) and perhaps more coherency: