By Emily Wunderlich and Timothy Fanning
Are you dressing up this Halloween? How about your friends, siblings or roommates? What will you wear and how did you decide which costume?
How do you know when a Halloween costume crosses the line from being edgy or original to offensive?
The answer to that last question has haunted universities across the country for the past several years, where these issues have lead to warnings about costume choices.
To address some of the do’s and don’ts of Halloween costumes, Compass and the Multicultural Activities Council hosted a forum on the issue last week.
Jon Jackson, sophomore cultural anthropology major and educational development chair of MAC, led the conversation alongside a panel of three other student council members.
Jackson emphasized the relationship between intent and impact, stating that many who dress offensively are often not aware of the consequences.
Around 20 people attended the event, held at The Edge as part of a new program called “Talk n’ Snack.”
Much of the discussion focused on the harmful effects of cultural appropriation — adopting aspects of someone else’s culture — and why dressing as an American Indian or a Geisha might be offensive.
Blackface was one of the major talking points. Originating during 19th century minstrel shows to mock and dehumanize the black community, according to the panel, it reduces people to nothing but skin color.
“My race is not a costume,” said Meghan Coote, freshman biology major. “I go through hell and back every day dealing with all sorts of stereotypes and all sorts of obstacles that people put in front of me, and I am not going to sit here and be treated as a costume.”
Native American headdresses were another example. The panel said that these sacred items are earned and should not be cheaply rendered or commodified for profit.
Costumes that hypersexualize Native Americans were also deemed unacceptable by the panel, as indigenous women face one of the highest risk of sexual assault, more than twice the national average, according to the Justice Department.
Costumes mimicking Mexican culture are also offensive because they often push racial stereotypes while implying that everyone in Latin America dresses the same.
Japanese kimonos were another. Traditional kimonos are highly conservative and worn by Geishas, who entertain others through dance and music. The panel identified these costumes as being offensive, as they imply that Asia is culturally uniform, with no differences from country to country.
Cross-cultural dressing of any sort promotes inaccurate stereotypes, erases cultural diversity and fetishizes people of other ethnic groups, according to the panel.
There are alternatives
Jackson said you can dress as your favorite character or celebrity without marginalizing entire groups of people. If you’re unsure of how to do this, incorporate that person’s signature moves, style or phrases.
For example, someone going as Michael Jackson might do his famous moonwalk or wear his iconic single white glove.
If all else fails, it can’t hurt to simply identify who you are dressed as.
Jackson wrapped up the discussion by explaining the ways in which you can appreciate a culture without wearing it as a costume.
Understanding the culture’s history and traditions is a good place to start. Participating as an outsider is even better, but only if invited to do so by members of that culture.
Jackson also reminded the audience that the only people who get to decide what is offensive to a certain ethnic group are the people of that ethnic group. White people do not get to tell people of color what should or should not offend them.
Moreover, a single person cannot speak for an entire group. Just because one person said it all right did not make it non-offensive to an entire race or culture.
A national debate
Universities across the country are urging students to pass on the offensive and attention-grabbing costumes.
Citing concerns that certain costumes featuring “sombreros,” or large, broad-brimmed straw hats typically worn in Mexico, Native American Headdresses and blackface are becoming flashpoints in campus debates over race and culture, administrators are using letters, campus forums and advertising campaigns to encourage students to pick outfits that don’t offend classmates of various backgrounds.
Some, like USF St. Petersburg, issued a letter encouraging students to consider how a costume aligns with the organization’s values of “fostering inclusiveness,” and “avoids circumstances that threaten our sense of community, or disrespects, alienates or ridicules members of our community based on race, nationality (or) religious belief.”
Others, like Southern Utah University, have put up dozens of billboards and shared social media the message, “My Culture is not my Costume,” along with images of students of color holding photos of people wearing costumes from their race and culture.
Similar campaigns have spread to other schools like University of Denver and the University of New Hampshire.
Supporters of the campaigns see them as a chance to start a conversation about cultural appropriation and educate students about their own cultures.
However, critics see it as another example of political correctness and expressed fears that it will lead to a host of costumes being prohibited and turn students away from celebrating Halloween.
On Oct. 26, Martin Tadlock, interim regional chancellor, and Student Body President David Thompson, sent an email to campus faculty, staff and students, urging them to consider the impacts of their Halloween costumes.
“While we all have the right to express ourselves,” the letter said, “we hope that you will actively avoid the circumstance that threatens our sense of community … We are committed to fostering a learning environment where all can engage with ideas, thoughts,and ideas.”
The letter encouraged the campus to consider a wide range of factors when picking a costume, including:
Are you wearing a costume intended to be humorous? Is the humor based on “making fun” of real people, human traits or cultures?
Are you wearing a historical costume? If this costume is meant to be historical, might it further misinformation or historical and cultural inaccuracies?
Are you wearing a costume based upon certain culture? Might it promote stereotypes?
“Ultimately, at the end of the day, (we) wanted to encourage people to realize they can have fun and enjoy Halloween without being at the expense of others, said Thompson. “It’s important to think about other people, and how your actions can impact them in ways you didn’t intend them to. Political correctness, in reality, is about being polite and courteous of other people.”
Information from the Associated Press and New York Times was used in this report.
Pictured Above: Jon Jackson engages in a meaningful exchange with an audience member. Emily Wunderlich | The Crow’s Nest