Offensive Halloween Costumes

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I received the following email this morning:

To all Syracuse University students:

We take pride in working together to make Syracuse University a welcoming, safe and respectful living and learning environment. The efforts of students, faculty and staff to promote and develop the appreciation of differences and similarities on this campus are numerous and ongoing. To continue promoting a safe and secure community free of crime and/or policy violations that are motivated by discrimination, sexual and bias-related harassment, and other violations of rights, we must work together every day! At this time of year, we especially need your assistance.

Halloween-related activities can be fun, but they are not an opportunity for carelessness, insensitivity and disrespect toward others. Incidents here and on other campuses have drawn attention to bias-related incidents, and we ask that everyone in the Syracuse University community become engaged in making this
campus safe, secure and bias-free.

The student organizations listed below and I ask that everyone who chooses to wear a Halloween costume please take a minute to think about what kind of response your costume may elicit from others, and make a mature and responsible decision as to whether your costume is appropriate. Portrayals of ethnicity and race, gender, class, religions, cultures or sexual orientations, just
to name a few, may be considered in poor taste or offensive.

As members of a university community, we ask you to think about how others may be impacted by the costume you choose to wear. These portrayals, while sometimes considered harmless, tend to reinforce stereotypes, inaccurately represent cultures, demean groups or individuals, or make a mockery of Syracuse University values and beliefs. While the intent may be harmless, in many instances the end result may be unintentionally yet unfortunately damaging. If you choose to take part in any Halloween-related festivities this year, please be respectful and responsible. Thank you.

The letter is signed by the university's Senior Vice President and Dean of Student Affairs, and then there's a long list of "recognized student organizations [who] have endorsed this letter, and encourage all members of the Syracuse University community to use good judgment during the Halloween season". It includes the bodies overseeing the fraternities and sororities, 19 fraternities and sororities, and 31 other student organizations. Some were political or racially based, but most have nothing to do with politics or diversity issues. I've blogged about this before, but I want to mention the three past bias-related incidents involving blackface that have led to this email to show how, as Sam puts it, these people "have blackface on the brain".

The first case I know of happened when this fraternity was targeted as being racially insensitive because one of its brothers dressed up as Tiger Woods at the insistence of his black fraternity brother for a fraternity event that involved dressing up as a golfer. This was insensitive to the history of blackface and the minstrel shows, but most white people have never heard of a minstrel show nowadays, and apparently enough black people haven't that there are some who would say this shouldn't be offensive. The fact is that this guy was doing nothing like what the minstrel shows did, and if someone's merely being reminded of the minstrel shows is offensive, then my jazz history teacher who talked about it should have been taken to the judicial affairs department and told that his class was racially insensitive. That's just nonsense. The guy did something stupid, but classifying it as a bias-related incident set a very bad precedent.

The second event was at Halloween last year [you'll need to register with an email address to read the article, but the letters in response are worth it], when someone dressed up as a Pacific Islander with a grass skirt, and they considered it racially offensive. The critiques there that hardly any Halloween costume is safe anymore go too far (most traditional Halloween costumes are of things don't exist and can't be offended), but their general point is right. At Halloween you're supposed to have caricatures. How else could you dress up as a witch and carry a broomstick, wear a black pointy hat, and put a carrot on your nose? Should that be offensive to Wiccans? If so, is it a bias-related incident? I don't know how dressing as a Pacific Islander with a grass skirt qualifies as being related to any bias. It may show ignorance of what Pacific Islanders are like. It may not. It may be simply dressing as the caricature, which most Halloween costumes do anyway. Calling it a bias-related incident is at best an exaggeration.

The third incident I know of was the most ridiculous. [This is from the same site as the previous one, so you'll need to submit your email address to read it if you didn't do it for that one.] A fraternity and sorority had an ongoing series of pranks against each other, and one night someone from the fraternity dressed up as a burglar with black face paint and broke into the sorority house to steal the composite. This was a prank. It had nothing to do with race. The costume was not of a black burglar but of a burglar who had put black face paint on to avoid being seen at night. If it had been an ROTC student with black face paint for a drill, there would have been no difference except that ROTC students generally aren't doing illegal things as pranks. Fraternity brothers are. I don't have a problem with treating this as a judiciary incident because of illegal activity, but someone in the office dealing with these things sent out an email to the entire unversity community declaring that this had been declared a bias-related incident. I immediately shot out an email to the person who oversees this sort of thing to object, and he shortly retracted it, claiming that someone had sent out the message prematurely and that it had not been classified as anything yet. Two of my students that semester turned out to have been in that fraternity and sorority, and they forced them to miss my three-hour class that only met once a week to go to some meeting resolving the 'bias-related incident' issue. That it took three hours to resolve that is pretty sad. It obviously had nothing to do with bias. It's telling that the only thing they mention about this in the article is that he was allegedly dressed in blackface and that, though he didn't intend it, it might have been offensive to some. That's really their only justification for their claim that this prank had gotten out of hand. A more descriptive article (that's much shorter, ironically) is here. This one was so stupid it even made it's way to Australia.

I'm assuming this will now be an annual blackface letter from the university just before Halloween. I still haven't seen an incident of blackface at Syracuse University that should genuinely count as bias-related. I'm not saying all these people are innocent (though maybe the second one is). I'm saying their guilt (if there) has been misclassified. This has nothing to do with bias. At most, the first case was racially insensitive, not bias-related. If the second one is bad, it's for the same reason. The third one is just an illegal prank with no racial connection. I conclude that Sam is right. They do have blackface on the brain. I've seen letters to the Daily Orange saying that such incidents prove how racist the university really is. Such comments show a lack of concern for the genuinely dangerous kinds of racism that exist, which I've talked about in the first half of my racism double trilogy and an inability to resist using any excuse to get some sick jollies out of making white people feel terrible, which came up in the second half of that series. This mindset does nothing to further race relations because it seeks to cause conflict where there really needs to be none.

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In an effort to appease those with black-face-on-the-brain Syracuse University has sent out a campus wide email urging students to "think about how others may be impacted by the costume you choose to wear." Translation, beware the idiots who don't un... Read More

6 Comments

Jeremy,
Just FYI, I learned today that it IS offensive to Wiccans if people dress as witches for Halloween: http://www.cnsnews.com/ViewCulture.asp?Page=%5CCulture%5Carchive%5C200410%5CCUL20041028b.html.
Just thought you might want to know. :)

Well, there you go! What's interesting about this is that witch costumes at Halloween aren't supposed to represent Wicca! They'll see what they're doing as standing in a long tradition and even say that Wicca is very old as a religion, but that's just not true. Wicca is largely a modern phenonmenon that borrows to some degree from a number of ancient pagan religious practices but is its own entity. If you don't believe me, see this summary of different kinds of neopaganism for a fairly balanced presentation of that issue.

Wiccans who use the term 'witch' aren't claiming to be like the witches of fairy tales, so it's a little odd that they would adopt a title that reminds people of those witches and then complain that people who dress up as those witches are offending them! It would be like starting a group that drinks animal blood for a hobby, calling yourself vampires, and then getting mad when people dress up for Halloween as vampires with pointy teeth and black capes.

Yeah, I know what you mean. I just thought it was funny to see that on the same day you wrote on it...

Heh. I got that e-mail too. I read about two sentences of it before I realized how ridiculous it was.

You know what scares me? There are armed robberies happening practically every other day in the area around this school, and all they do when it happens is send out the same list of safety tips. But if someone dares to paint their face in an "offensive" way, it's treated as a campus-wide crisis.

Can you say "misplaced priorities?"

Dress as an SS guard and see what happens.

There have been a lot of ethnic pranks during last festival in campuses. An appeal for more more talking to students was made which had to persuade them it wasn't a good idea.

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