Fliers from Ohio University’s STARS (Students Teaching About Racism in Society) created a poster campaign to spread awareness about offensive Halloween costumes.
Lauren Zoons, 21, could have dressed up as a sexy animal this Halloween. She could have chosen to be a sultry nurse or a geisha, but she decided on a Native American costume instead.
The University of Florida (UF) telecommunications and English senior said her choice was an easy, last-minute idea that she threw together from all of the Native American paraphernalia she already had.
“I tried to make my costume as authentic and realistic as possible. … I was not trying to be ‘sexy’ with it,” she said. “I saw a girl wearing one that same night and it basically consisted of a tan bra and short, tan fringe skirt, with no real references to Native American culture.”
Despite having stayed away from hyper-sexualized character choices, Zoons could be facing another costume-related controversy: representing a culture that might not want to be portrayed through dress up.
Every year, Halloween festivities bring about groups of people who feel certain racial, ethnic or cultural costumes are inappropriate. This open letter addressed to “PocaHotties and Indian Warriors” encompasses some of the issues.
In the letter, posted on a blog titled “Native Appropriations,” Ph.D. student Adrienne K. argues, “You [white people] are in a position of power. You might not know it, but you are. Simply because of the color of your skin, you have been afforded opportunities and privilege, because our country was built on a foundation of white supremacy. That’s probably a concept that’s too much for you to handle right now, when all you wanted to do was dress up as a PocaHottie for Halloween, but it’s true.
“I am not in a position of power,” she writes. “Native people are not in positions of power. By dressing up as a fake Indian, you are asserting your power over us, and continuing to oppress us. That should worry you.”
With other popular Halloween getups such as “Mexican yard worker” and “pregnant hillbilly,” the line between offensive and playful is further blurred.
Members of the Undergraduate Government of Boston College (BC) decided to create a campus-wide campaign called Dress With Respect to help clear things up. The campaign encourages students to think twice before choosing a costume and to be aware of the possible repercussions it may have.
“We saw some pretty intense costumes last year,” said Natali Soto, co-director of the campaign’s committee. “This year we decided to be proactive rather than reactive.”
The students created a banner that showcased campus leaders who pledged to dress with respect. The pledges were broadcasted throughout campus and on social media sites to serve as a conversation starter.
“We came together to make a beneficial and efficient way to tackle the issues without directing what is offensive and what isn’t,” said Francesska Jean-Pierre, co-director of the committee. “We really wanted to start the dialogue.”
Jean-Pierre said the group made sure to focus on addressing costumes that mocked race, culture, religious affiliation and the LGBT community.
But BC is not the first school to form a campaign on the subject. In 2011, students at Ohio University decided to take a stand.
Members of STARS (Students Teaching About Racism in Society) created the poster campaign “We’re a Culture, Not a Costume,” which garnered national media attention.
The campaign showcased different costumes that were offensive to several racial and ethnic groups.
Laura Hyde, public relations Chair of STARS, said the biggest change from last year’s campaign is the tagline: “You Wear the Costume for One Night, I Wear the Stigma for Life.”
Additionally, a sixth poster was created to address the issues with dressing up as a hillbilly. Hyde said it has received a lot of criticism because the man in the picture is white, so many people say he’s not a victim of racism.
“We felt it was particularly important to include it because it’s specifically relevant to the Appalachian region near OU,” she said. “The poster isn’t saying ‘this is racism,’ it’s saying these are people who are also marginalized.”
Sociologist Lisa Wade said Halloween is a microcosm of a bigger societal issue and that it goes beyond Oct. 31.
“Everything that we see in society is reflected in Halloween costumes,” she said.
She said these costumes are popular because they play off of offensive humor, which is “the fun thing to do.”
“In campuses … there’s a particular type of masculinity that dominates college culture,” she said. “It can be referred to as frat-boy masculinity, which involves pushing boundaries with humor.”
That’s exactly what two UF members of Beta Theta Pi did last week when they painted themselves black as part of the chapter’s “Rock Stars and Rappers” Halloween party.
A screenshot of the photo was posted on the Facebook page of NAACP-UF, and it immediately caused a buzz. Students debated the offensive nature of the costumes, which many thought resembled black minstrel shows.
Laimondo Lee, a personal trainer and Gainesville, Fla., resident, said even though he’s black he thinks the whole ordeal has been blown out of proportion.
“It’s not the funniest thing in the world but I’m not feeling offended,” the 23-year-old said. “These guys weren’t being malicious.”
Lee added that there are much greater stereotypes around campus that should be discussed and that a rapper costume should not be one of them.
“It was just a college prank,” he said. “If I painted myself white and wore a blond wig, people would laugh, too.”
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