Univer­si­ties dis­cour­age in­sen­si­tive cos­tumes

Con­tro­ver­sial out­fits de­pict­ing other cul­tures best avoided, ad­min­is­tra­tors say

Winnipeg Free Press - - NEWS - MICHAEL CASEY

URHAM, N.H. — Univer­si­ties are urg­ing stu­dents in search of an at­ten­tion-grab­bing costume this Hal­loween to pass on som­breros, In­dige­nous head­dresses and black­face.

Those are some of the cos­tumes grab­bing the at­ten­tion of uni­ver­sity ad­min­is­tra­tors who are in­creas­ingly con­cerned that cer­tain cos­tumes are be­com­ing flash­points in cam­pus de­bates over race and cul­ture. While not out­right pro­hibit­ing any costume, ad­min­is­tra­tors are us­ing let­ters, cam­pus fo­rums and ad­ver­tis­ing cam­paigns to en­cour­age stu­dents to pick out­fits that don’t of­fend class­mates of colour.

Some, such as the Uni­ver­sity of Texas at Austin, is­sued a flyer en­cour­ag­ing stu­dents to con­sider how a costume aligns with an or­ga­ni­za­tion’s val­ues and whether it is “re­flec­tive of a cer­tain racial group, gen­der and/or eco­nomic class.” It also in­cludes a list of harm­ful themes or cos­tumes: any paint­ing or tint­ing of skin, stereo­types of Asian cul­ture, cow­boys and In­di­ans or south of the bor­der/fi­esta. Comic book he­roes and time pe­riod themes are fine.

At South­ern Utah Uni­ver­sity, dozens of bill­boards have been put up and shared on so­cial me­dia with the mes­sage,

D“My Cul­ture is not a Costume,” along with images of stu­dents of colour hold­ing photos of peo­ple wear­ing cos­tumes from their race or cul­ture. Sim­i­lar poster cam­paigns have spread to other schools, in­clud­ing the Uni­ver­sity of Den­ver and Uni­ver­sity of New Hamp­shire.

“We launched it dur­ing this time be­cause... Hal­loween is when we start to see a lot of those of­fen­sive cos­tumes,” said Maria Martinez, South­ern Utah’s di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for Di­ver­sity and In­clu­sion, ad­ding she got the idea from Ohio Uni­ver­sity. “Stu­dents wanted to send a re­minder be­cause they do feel dis­re­spected when some­one shows up in a costume that rep­re­sents their cul­ture, par­tic­u­larly when it’s an in­ac­cu­rate stereo­type.”

Sup­port­ers see the cam­paigns as a chance to start a con­ver­sa­tion about cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion — adopt­ing as­pects of some­one else’s cul­ture — and to ed­u­cate stu­dents about their own cul­tures and about why dress­ing as a Mex­i­can im­mi­grant or Poc­a­hon­tas might be a prob­lem.

“A lot of peo­ple are like I am, just wear­ing a pon­cho like I’m not try­ing to ap­pro­pri­ate a cul­ture,” said Juan Gomez-Ri­vadeneira, a 21-year-old mem­ber of the Uni­ver­sity of New Hamp­shire’s Latino stu­dent as­so­ci­a­tion Mo­saico. He says they have to know why peo­ple view it a cer­tain way, even though it wasn’t their orig­i­nal in­ten­tion.

Crit­ics see the move as an­other ex­am­ple of po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness and fear it will lead to a host of cos­tumes be­ing pro­hib­ited and turn stu­dents off of cel­e­brat­ing Hal­loween. In 2015, a Yale Uni­ver­sity fac­ulty mem­ber re­signed af­ter her calls for stu­dents to push bound­aries with Hal­loween cos­tumes sparked protests. She was re­spond­ing to calls by the uni­ver­sity for stu­dents to avoid wear­ing racially in­sen­si­tive cos­tumes.

“The cul­tural tem­per­a­ture on this has got­ten so high that noth­ing is ap­pro­pri­ate any­more. We are get­ting to the point where pro­hi­bi­tion is the rule,” said Michael Recten­wald, a pro­fes­sor of Global Lib­eral Stud­ies at New York Uni­ver­sity, who has crit­i­cized Hal­loween costume poli­cies.

In­spired by sev­eral racial in­ci­dents at UNH this year, in­clud­ing white stu­dents wear­ing pon­chos and other Mex­i­can at­tire dur­ing Cinco de Mayo, the Stu­dent Se­nate ear­lier this month passed a res­o­lu­tion call­ing on the ad­min­is­tra­tion to de­nounce the “in­sen­si­tiv­ity of acts of cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion and racism that com­monly oc­cur when stu­dents cel­e­brate Hal­loween.” A let­ter from ad­min­is­tra­tors was sent to stu­dents this week en­cour­ag­ing them to be re­spect­ful of oth­ers her­itages.

Stu­dents at UNH said they’d seen the Hal­loween posters in their res­i­dent halls with the mes­sage, “You wear the costume for one night. I wear the stigma for life.”

Many said they un­der­stood the con­cerns, and a few said it had them re­con­sid­er­ing costume choices — in­clud­ing a stu­dent who was talked out of wear­ing an In­dige­nous chief’s at­tire. Oth­ers said it was un­nec­es­sary for the school to sug­gest what they wear and com­plained that their de­ci­sion to wear an eth­nic costume was aimed at cel­e­brat­ing a cul­ture, not mock­ing it. Oth­ers feared that the cam­paign only sowed con­fu­sion, leav­ing stu­dents won­der­ing if any costume was safe.

“I’m kind of 50-50 on it. I feel like it’s dra­matic. They are be­ing a lit­tle ex­ces­sive,” said Sarah Smith, a 19-year-old UNH sopho­more. “I def­i­nitely feel the knowl­edge is good and that peo­ple should re­spect other peo­ple. But I also be­lieve that lit­er­ally any costume that some­body wears, some­body can find a prob­lem with it.”

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