Bobbing for Racists: What Makes Halloween Scary at American Colleges

Halloween is upon us, which means that millions of college students will engage in tasteful get-togethers, where the refreshments are sure to enhance the already sophisticated events to which coeds are inherently accustomed.

I kid. This weekend’s college environment will primarily consist of drunken young adults, whose costumes will range from topical to every variation of a “slutty/sexy” version of an otherwise mundane occupation (yawn). Somewhere along that spectrum, however, anyone who visits a college party will also see their fair share of costumes that stand to offend minority groups. Since college turnover guarantees a new crop of impressionable, oft ignorant and/or desensitized students every year, reported incidents regarding racist costumes on American college campuses have become as routine as homecoming weekend.

Enter Students Teaching Against Racism (STARS), a group of students at Ohio University that has exercised its right as collegians to embrace a cause that makes them feel like they are making a difference in a world poised to show them just how much they matter when they graduate with a mountain of debt and a stack of unwanted resumes. STARS received national attention with their poster series created to raise awareness about the importance of being culturally sensitive when planning a Halloween costume. Each of the five posters, all with the headline “We’re a culture, not a costume,” features a person of color holding up a photograph of a person wearing a costume that purportedly caricaturizes the ethnicity of that person.

Naturally, in America, the poster series has had a polarizing effect, as evidenced on internet comment boards since its viral spread. While many applaud the OU students’ effort to promote healthy dialogue in a racially tense country, others have dismissed the STARS tactic as hypersensitivity that only college kids would have time and energy to express. In the case of this poster series, believe it or not, both sides have a legitimate argument. This Marz Daily Media Weekender will dissect the five posters in the interest of promoting healthy discourse about race and improving the strategy of raising cultural awareness (while hopefully bringing some levity to an otherwise contentious subject). The goal is not to lay a foundation for a “my ethnic group has it worse than yours” contest. Rather, my argument is that there are specific aspects of this poster series that transcend the oversimplified terms in which racism is discussed in the online environment.

Blacks

Have a look at the photograph of the girl in brownface (and body) posing with Edward of Twilight. The girl’s costume, with its trucker hat, long neck chain, ‘grills,’ and Styrofoam cup, invokes the style of an archetype developed within the mainstream hip-hop landscape. So what a viewer would interpret as racist about the costume is the artificially darkened skin.

However, sensitivities to blackface’s historic role in our society hardly apply to a costume like this. Firstly, blackface was just that, black…as in black as coal. And minstrel characters complemented their newly black skin with cartoonishly big lips drawn on with red lipstick. So to compare a young woman’s lame attempt at a Lil’ Wayne impersonation to a spectacle designed to dehumanize an entire group of people is not hypersensitive; it is inaccurate.

If anyone should be criticized for what STARS is calling a caricature in this photo, it’s the people who have projected the original image, the popular rappers whose style is considered an extension of identity exploited by a white, Judeo-Christian capitalist culture. STARS missed the mark here by picking the wrong photograph to make their point that American history should always be a contextual guideline for Halloween costumes. And although the young woman pictured needs a lesson in how to be more interesting (as all college kids do), there is no reason to believe that she sought to reclaim ownership over a performance device that symbolizes the race problem.

Mexicans

People who’ve never been to Mexico, myself included, tend to get their ideas of what Mexicans are like through television. Such is the case with most minority groups in ‘real’ America. But this costume of the sombrero-and-poncho-clad Mexican on a burro looks more like your granddaddy’s stereotypical Mexican. Does this mean that an old-hat stereotype is less racially inflammatory than a new one, say, in the form of a bald, tattooed gangbanger? Well…kind of. Regardless of the differences in cultural sensitivity through generations, the claim that this costume is offensive would have to explain why that is the case (and no, “I’m Mexican and I don’t look like that” is not a viable argument). Anyone who can explain how history has rendered the pictured archetype off limits to emulate is welcome to write this viewpoint off as ignorant, so long as he or she shares that history with the rest of us (I am genuinely interested).

But when this image is being used to illustrate that a costume does not define a culture, a college student in said costume could respond to the claim with, “I know that. Don’t you think I would have been able to borrow a real donkey for this costume if I thought you all had them?” And you know what, not only would that student turn the cry of racism on its head, but the student would also demonstrate a sharp wit. Of course, the wit of someone dressed like an extra in a spaghetti Western couldn’t be that witty, considering how terribly uncreative a costume it is. Is ‘uncreative’ how you say ‘racist’ in Spanish? Maybe that’s the problem.

Arabs

Now we’re getting somewhere. Get a load of this jackass in the ghutra (bet that’ll be your word of the day). He’s decided to be a jihadist for Halloween, a scary image to be sure, especially controversial since the perception of Arab people has significantly changed since 9/11. As far as the costume goes, the challenge comes in figuring out why the costume is amusing. And wearing a costume that symbolizes the kind of terrorism that is fresh in the American psyche doesn’t elicit the fright factor that a scary Halloween costume should. So this costume is what some college kids would immediately call a ‘double fail.’

With respect to the poster overall, the costume creates a stark contrast to the westernized young Arab man, who has embraced American culture while still asserting his own. Of course, no one wants their ethnic group to be associated with suicide bombers. But would the man’s costume be less offensive if it looked less stereotypical and, say, more like…a westernized Arab? After all, the men involved in the 9/11 attacks moved around resembling the young man without the ghutra more than the young man with one. Of the 5 costumes, this one is probably the most incendiary, but the poor taste of it transcends cultural sensitivity and calls a greater sense of bad judgment into question.

Asians

STARS really went for the heartstrings with this one. The young lady holding the photograph of the geisha seems to be carrying the sorrow of all Asian people who have ever felt misrepresented. But to address the legitimacy of reacting to a geisha costume with such sadness, here is a different snapshot of what happens in America:

Every spring, the Botanic Garden in Brooklyn, New York hosts the Sakura Matsuri Festival. Occurring during the full bloom of the garden’s cherry blossoms, the festival celebrates the beauty of Japanese culture just as much as the trees themselves. Exhibitions include live bands, martial arts demonstrations and a parade in which participants dress in traditional Japanese attire, very similar to (if not exactly like) geishas. The grace of the parade comes both in its affirmation of an otherwise unseen cultural component and also in its inclusivity. Men and women of all backgrounds are invited to take part in the procession free of judgment or apprehension, and a good time is had by all.

So from that scene comes the following question: what about dressing like a geisha is inherently offensive to Japanese people? While there have been linkages to geishas and prostitution dating back to the Allied Occupation of Japan during the 1940s, the history of geishas is far more complex than even a culturally ignorant coed could trivialize by dressing like one (depending, of course, on what she plans to do while wearing the costume…which she was probably going to do anyway…but…yeah).

Absolving this costume as inoffensive does not mean that there are not racist images of Asian people that are best left in the past. Take Mr. Yunioshi, for example, Holly Golightly’s loud, lecherous, photographer [groan] neighbor in the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Anyone would be hard pressed to find a grosser caricature of a Japanese man even today. But as it stands, STARS decided to interpret an image through a marginal lens instead of presenting an example of racist imagery that forces people to be more objectively critical about the costume choices they make. Putting people in a position of thinking that everything they say and do might be offensive is more divisive than conducive to healthy cultural coexistence. Ironically, the geisha costume used in this context works to project silence and timidity outward.

Indians (the Native American kind)

“Me wantum piece…not war.” Interesting. At best, the placard in front of the couple dressed as 19th-century Native Americans could be a clever play on words in which the ‘piece’ refers to a smoking apparatus associated with…good times. At worst, the placard is a claim that Native Americans were somewhat illiterate. Clearly, since the costumes leave nothing to be guessed, one can conclude that the couple tried their hand at turning the western film representation of Native Americans into a more fun-loving version (a propos for a Halloween party, of course).

Is this the best costume idea? Hell no. Is it an accurate reflection of a typical Native American today? No, it isn’t. But does someone in that costume need to be reported to the Dean for being racist? Dah (Apache for ‘no’). These crazy kids may “wantum piece,” but me wantum them to be a little more interesting when they prepare to use alcohol and costumes to excuse their exceptionally uninhibited behavior.

Before you go…

Every day, society requires that we wear disguises. We work jobs that we don’t like but we pretend that we like them just enough to keep them. We interact with people that we don’t care for with same tact that we would use when interacting with people we like. And millions of young Americans attend college so that they can secure a future and prepare themselves to step into their own disguises.

But along the way, these young adults enter environments that expose them to diversity like they have never seen firsthand. And despite this diversity’s existence in a relatively safe and controlled environment, preconceived representations of race manifest themselves on college campuses and create conflict instead of the healthy dialogue for which institutions of higher learning are supposed to be ideal.

Unfortunately, during Halloween, the young minds that need the most shaping become pariahs for making poor costume choices before they can discuss the issues that they may have been too sheltered from or naïve to understand. And even worse still, the natural reaction to any late adolescent who feels attacked is blind defensiveness, which sometimes sinks them in depths of ignorance that he or she never intended to go.

During the period that young people struggle to affirm their own identities, it is important that the impassioned students are not left alone to dictate how other people should form theirs. Student involvement in awareness campaigns like the STARS poster creates a polarizing dynamic that none of the students have earned (even if they do wear blackface for Halloween), and a responsible and more experienced elder should have been consulted on the strength of their message (if they did have help from the faculty, they should have had better help).

STARS asserts that every ethnic group is “a culture, not a costume.” Truer still, a costume is a false identity, sometimes emulating the idea of an individual. Stereotypical ideas about race in America continue to alienate people—no matter how removed from the stereotypes we become—especially young people determined to establish their identities by swimming against the current of those stereotypes. Unfortunately, the STARS poster series comes up short in that the images presented as offensive do not match the importance of the message they tried to convey.

And despite the systemic inequality that minorities have experienced in America, the victimhood that the students in these posters appear to embody does nothing to create the ideal dynamic for learning cultural sensitivity. While initiatives like the STARS poster series can help deter people from behaving inappropriately, the paralytic affect that this deterrence can have suppresses ignorance instead of teaching people to shed it like…well…a bad costume.

This article will likely not make a difference for the millions of students gearing up for a weekend of fun. Perhaps the discord among students as it relates to cultural misrepresentation on Halloween is as much a part of the American college landscape as rush week for fraternities and sororities. But if students are going to continue to take it upon themselves to teach their peers about multi-cultural awareness, there is still a lot of work to be done.

So here’s to the continuing progress of student-run social change. In the meantime, though, I wish college students everywhere a safe and smart(ish) Halloweekend.

About lemarmclean

I am a writer born and raised in New York City.

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