This last week, posters from a small student group at Ohio University have become the center of controversy over their Halloween costume campaign: We’re a Culture Not a Costume.
I wasn’t sure how to take the posters and commentary at first. I find it pathetic that people lack this much creativity so it’s hard for me to even acknowledge these as costumes when I’m used to pulling off these. I see the above “costumes” as ignorant caricatures donned by equally ignorant college students.
However, college is supposed to be a time of growth and change from the insulated high school experience to a larger sense of community, purpose and understanding of the world. In my first month of college, I watched a bad television show and said: That’s so gay. My friend’s gay roommate responded: That’s hurtful because it implies gay is bad or stupid. Me: I never thought of that. Thanks. And I didn’t do it again. I, in turn, stood up to hurtful language later on in college and beyond
The awareness, which the Ohio students bring by pointing out how these costumes imply hurtful ideas and ideologies, is important. Many people don’t understand the history of blackface or geisha because they’ve never needed to understand another culture. Or no one had the courage to call them out on it. This is what college can do — remind us that we are not the center of the universe.
Of course, many commenters have bristled that these students are ruining Halloween’s fun. Some state: What’s next? Cowboys? Well, cowboys aren’t being characterized negatively in the costume. I don’t see people laughing at the idea of being a cowboy unless the person is a cowboy in Brokeback Mountain but then it would the “jokes” about being gay not about being a cowboy.
Other commenters write: Where is the white man looking sad holding a photo of someone dressed up with no teeth and a possum hat? I actually think a kid from Appalachia could’ve been on the poster although I think the issue is making fun of being poor not being white.
But I see the bigger question: Does this mean, if we dressed up like another culture or job with cultural aspects (as some see cowboys) in a positive light, it would be okay? If we dressed like wealthy, white men in America, it would be okay?
I don’t know always where the line is between a joke and offensiveness. Over the last year, I’ve thought of the post on Late Enough with a title that made fun of having teeth at the county fair. I wasn’t comfortable with the title although I did write it and keep it. I felt like it was an easy joke rather than a good joke. But after writing on culture and costumes, I reworded that title because that piece was about attending our first state fair not about being too poor to afford dental care. No one called me out on it, but it just wasn’t funny. And more so, it wasn’t nice.
We all forget how our words, actions and yes, even costumes, can affect one another in profound ways.
“The more we look at people as caricatures, the harder it is to operate as democracy,” [Jelani Cobb] said. “What underlies this kind of costuming is the belief that these people aren’t quite equal to what we are or aren’t as American as we are or that you as a person who’s not member of that group should be able to dictate how painful stereotype should be.”(source)
Where is the line? Perhaps it is not narrow or obvious every time. But I can offer this for Halloween and beyond: With so many creative costumes ideas out there, why chose one that may hurt someone else? Choose the good joke, the creative, the self-deprecating first because people, even those we do not know, are more important than an easy laugh.