Wearing Yellowface

Is Spokane's head of human resources showing her true colors?

Caleb Walsh illustration

Most people have heard of blackfacing, but have you heard of redfacing or yellowfacing?

Well, Heather Lowe, head of human resources for the city of Spokane, clearly hasn't. A picture of her yellowfacing for Halloween last October has recently come to light and leaves me even more concerned about the embattled department. If the person who is supposed to set and enforce ethical standards lacks an essential ethic and moral core, the rest of the city of Spokane has no chance.

Let's break down cultural appropriation and what I call "colorfacing." Cultural appropriation is when a dominant group shuns, ignores or opposes a non-dominant group of unique cultural norms, dress, hairstyles, body styles, etc. Then, said dominant group takes that unique cultural norm and benefits from the use either by casting white people for roles intended to belong to another race, by stealing ethnic hairstyles and being called "edgy," or by going out on Halloween with a stereotyped costume and painting their skin a matching color.

Let's talk about the last one, because it happens all too often. It is morally questionable to wear a stereotypical Halloween costume like a kimono or deerskin Indian dress. It's on the very edge of being racist, but really, it just makes the wearer look a little foolish. It's not harmless, though it's not the most egregious thing someone can do either. But when someone pairs the grotesque costume of a minority group with face paint, they have stepped across ethical boundaries.

And when Lowe stepped out (and posted a picture on social media) on Halloween last year with face paint while in a kimono, she crossed the line of decency and respect. She is responsible for the city's HR policies — policies that prohibit racial discrimination.

Lowe didn't return messages seeking comment, but if she thinks that it is acceptable to engage in yellowfacing, she will have a hard time being the one to judge, support and appropriately deal with claims of racial discrimination. Her behavior completely undermines her position. There is not one person of color, in my acquaintance, who upon hearing of this behavior would be willing to submit a complaint of discrimination to her office.

That is a serious problem, not only for people of color but also for anyone else who works for the city. If the HR department director is willing to "yellowface" and belittle one protected class, what makes you think she won't do the same for other protected classes? Based on the evidence, I have no faith that a person with a mental or physical ability difference — or any other difference — would be treated with any more respect.

I know there are people who will read this and think that what Heather Lowe did wasn't really all that wrong. I mean, come on! How could a Halloween costume cause so much drama? Well, one of the ways that racism continues to grow and thrive in our community is by blaming the victims and the people brave enough to stand up against it. We can hope our community leaders across our city learn that colorfacing is never OK. If we don't hold ourselves and our highest-level officials to a high standard, no one will.♦

Tara Dowd, an enrolled Inupiaq Eskimo, was born into poverty and now owns a diversity consulting business. She is an advocate for systemic equity and sees justice as a force that makes communities better.

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