The Trayvon-Zimmerman Costume Controversy: Is the Reaction Fair?

I once defended Paris Hilton. It’s kind of hard to believe even now, but amid the copious amounts of bile I spat out all over her during her pop culture heyday back in the mid-to-late-aughts, there was one time that I felt it might be a little unfair for me and everyone else to be engaging in the usual pile-on. In February of 2007, a video clip started making the rounds that showed a potentially drunk Hilton using a series of racist and homophobic slurs while talking to someone she figured was a friend. Within days of the clip being publicized, GLAAD was demanding in the strongest terms possible that Hilton issue an official apology to the gay and black communities, which it contended were owed recourse. Except I wasn’t so sure.

While what Hilton said was reprehensible, she said it in what she thought was a private moment. Being angry at her for casually throwing around racist and homophobic language is one thing, but believing that an apology is in order for those who were never supposed to hear what she said in the first place just feels wrong somehow. It wasn’t like she went on a TV show and called people horrible names; she was privately being a rotten asshole. As far as I was concerned, she didn’t owe anybody anything. People would hear, they could make up their own minds, and they could decide for themselves whether or not to despise the hell out of Hilton for privately being a racist jerk — but they weren’t owed anything from her.

In the six-and-a-half years since that incident, our lives in the digital Panopticon have become even more transparent. I’ve written a few times about this before, but in an era where average people now have the ability to revel in — or be tormented by — the kind of exposure that used to be reserved only for celebrities, to assume that you have any privacy at all is not only foolish, it can make you regret ever being born. An unguarded moment that you think is private or at least semi-private can actually be broadcast to the world without your knowledge; an ill-advised act that you figure is only among friends can quickly reach more people than you could ever imagine and have far-reaching consequences for you.

The latter truth about life in the age of social media never becomes clearer than at this time of the year: Halloween. This is the time when every conceivable kind of idiot decides to make his or her own really, really terrible or offensive costume choice only to have it eventually wind up going mass media global. Maybe somebody plumbs the depths of tastelessness and dresses like Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman (or just Trayvon); maybe somebody else decides it’d be hilarious to be the burned and bloodied pilots of a doomed Asiana Airlines flight (complete with names supplied by an unbelievably stupid KTVU on-air screw-up); maybe a blonde-haired, blue-eyed starlet inexplicably figures blackface is a good idea. Either way, they all end up in the same place — and that’s everywhere.

Right now nobody knows this better than Greg Cimeno and William Filene, the two clowns from Cape Coral, Florida who photographed themselves at a party dressed like Zimmerman and Trayvon. What they likely thought was clever — what in reality was racist and offensive as hell — was posted to Facebook and almost surely was never meant to be circulated beyond their circle of online friends. The problem, of course, is that it just doesn’t work that way these days. The photo gained traction at the speed-of-outrage and in no time at all Cimeno and Filene were feeling the full wrath of the social media universe.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with shaming somebody who dresses in blackface as a dead teenager nor is it intolerable to ridicule a couple of people stupid and naive enough to believe that posting something inflammatory to a small group of friends on the internet will stay among that small group. But a number of articles on the incident note that Cimeno and Filene have yet to offer any sort of apology for their offensiveness, which seems to suggest that it’s owed. While I’m absolutely not defending these two, I don’t think that’s the case. I may not like what they did, but I don’t think they should have to apologize to me simply because, technically, I was never supposed to see their costumes in the first place.

There’s a big difference between calling someone out for bad behavior and believing that you’re entitled to satisfaction in the matter because you’re somehow an injured third party. Cimeno and Filene make a good example for all of us to be able to point to and say, “Not okay” — and people have in droves, their photo even being the impetus behind a new “Stop Blackface on Halloween” Facebook page — but when the desire for a pound of flesh pushes things beyond that it becomes not about seeking justice but about seeking vengeance. And that makes it about us rather than them.

Unlike Julianne Hough, who’s since apologized for dressing as a black character from Orange is the New Black and who seems genuinely sincere, the people in the Facebook picture are, like it or not, civilians. They don’t have important jobs or heightened cultural status and they don’t make decisions that affect public policy; they’re just your average dumb-ass Maury show rejects from the Gulf Coast of Florida. And yet it took no time at all for the girl in the shot, Caitlin Cimeno, to have her life eviscerated by an angry mob of people she’s never even met, but who decided that it was their prerogative to not only pass judgment but to mete out sentencing. Her home address and place of employment were quickly uncovered and the latter was bombarded with phone calls, tweets, and Facebook messages until, at least according to several reports, she was fired. Again, it’s not like Caitlin Cimeno worked at the White House or was even, say, a teacher. Does she really deserve to lose her livelihood because she posted a photo where she stood in between two guys wearing outrageously offensive Halloween costumes? And is it okay for the masses to summarily decide what punishment best fits her supposed crime, to stand on the side of the arena and give the thumbs-up or thumbs-down?

The primary lesson here, of course, is that it’s wrong to wear blackface on Halloween or for any reason. But the secondary lesson can’t be avoided: understand that in the age of social media, you have no expectation of privacy and believing otherwise can be disastrous. Our social media circles give the illusion that we’re among friends and only friends, that we’re safely inside each of our little bubbles, particularly if we happen to be nobodies in the big picture. But all it takes is a bit of curiosity — or the tiniest sliver of outrage — to turn our bad behavior into a viral sensation. And that’s kind of scary when you think about it.

One minute you can be an asshole wearing a racist Halloween costume, the next you can be one of the most hated people in America. Well, not all of America — because thanks to the publicity, there’s now a pretty good chance you’ll see quite a few people on Thursday dressed as Greg Cimeno and William Filene dressed as George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin.

Chez Pazienza was the beating heart of The Daily Banter, sadly passing away on February 25, 2017. His voice remains ever present at the Banter, and his influence as powerful as ever.