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Costume Choices

A year after detailed guidance from Yale set off a national debate, many other colleges are still offering detailed advice on how to avoid offensive Halloween costumes.

October 27, 2016
 
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A display at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst instructing students to avoid offensive Halloween costumes.

It happens on many college campuses every Halloween. Attending a party, a white student will wear a Native American headdress. A fraternity, its members dressed in blackface, will throw a “ghetto party.” A group of students -- or even college administrators -- will don sombreros and fake mustaches. Inevitably, photographs of the costumes will end up on Instagram or Twitter, with those posing unaware or unconcerned about the hurt these costumes cause. The resulting attention leads to embarrassment for the college and sets off racial tensions among students.

Colleges brace themselves for such controversies every year, and this Halloween is no different, with several institutions proactively encouraging students to avoid offensive and culturally insensitive costumes. At a time of frequent college protests over racism, the pre-emptive approach has the support of many multicultural groups and centers on campuses. But institutions are also facing criticism and mockery over what critics consider to be a chilling of free speech and coddling of overly sensitive students.

Colleges have reason to fear this time of year. In 2015, Yale University’s Intercultural Affairs Committee sent an email advising students to avoid culturally insensitive costumes, leading to one of the most widely discussed campus controversies of last year.

“Halloween is unfortunately a time when the normal thoughtfulness and sensitivity of most Yale students can sometimes be forgotten and some poor decisions can be made, including wearing feathered headdresses, turbans, wearing ‘war paint’ or modifying skin tone, or wearing blackface or redface,” stated the 500-word email, which also included a list of questions students should ask themselves before deciding on a costume.

An associate master of a residential college at Yale responded to the email with a mass email of her own, arguing that such costume advice demonstrated a lack of faith in “young people’s capacity to exercise self-censure” and their capacity to ignore or reject costumes that trouble them. The response helped fuel protests on campus throughout the following month, with hundreds of students calling for the employee’s resignation or firing. In December, several dozen Yale faculty members issued an open letter in support of free speech and the employee.

This year, Yale officials opted to keep its Halloween message more succinct, including just one sentence about costumes in a brief email to students. The university has sent similar messages in previous years, prior to the 2015 approach.

“With fall break here and Halloween just around the corner, we hope you are all planning to take some time to relax and have fun with people you care about,” the email reads. “We also hope you that you will stay safe, think about the choices you are making and be aware of how those choices affect other people. Yale should always be a community of care and mutual respect, and we invite your active participation in that shared effort. If you see someone who needs medical attention, call for help. If you dress up for the holiday, don a costume that respects your classmates. If you engage in sexual behavior, do so with consent and mutual respect.”

Not all colleges are opting for Yale’s less-involved approach. Earlier this month, the University of Wisconsin at LaCrosse organized a seminar called “Is Your Costume Racist?” and invited students to attend. At the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, several signs around campus instruct students to avoid cultural appropriation when planning their Halloween costumes. The signs were posted in residence halls as part of an initiative led by the university’s diversity office, its Center for Women and Community, and its Center for Multicultural Advancement and Student Success.

One poster features a meter similar to the terrorism alert meter used by the federal government. Called the Simple Costume Racism Evaluation and Assessment Meter (or SCREAM), the poster displays five threat levels, all assigned a different color. It asks students first if their costume is a person, thing or idea. If the costume is of a person, it then asks if the costume represents a person of the student’s own race. If the answer is yes, the threat level is considered “low.” If the answer is no, the student is directed farther up the meter and asked if the costume requires heavy makeup. If the answer is no, then the threat level is described as “guarded.”

If the answer is yes, the student continues farther up the meter, where the threat levels increase to “elevated,” “high” and “severe,” depending on how much makeup the student plans on wearing or, if the costume is an attempt at humor, whom the joke is targeting. “Cultural appropriation is an act of privilege and leads to offensive, inaccurate and stereotypical portrayals of other people’s culture,” another sign reads.

Earlier this month, the University of Florida also warned students against wearing offensive costumes. The university has twice dealt with students posting photographs of themselves in blackface on social media in recent years.

“Think about your choices of costumes and themes,” the university said in a blog post. “Some Halloween costumes reinforce stereotypes of particular races, genders, cultures or religions. Regardless of intent, these costumes can perpetuate negative stereotypes, causing harm and offense to groups of people. Also, keep in mind that social media posts can have a long-term impact on your personal and professional reputation.”

The post also reminded students that if they are troubled by an incident, they can submit a report with the university’s bias incident response team or seek counseling with the campus health center’s 24-7 counselor.

Both the Massachusetts SCREAM meter and Florida’s blog post were mocked on social media, blogs and websites. “According to a blog post from administrators at the University of Florida, students offended by insensitive Halloween costumes are being provided with around-the-clock counseling services,” a Breitbart article misleadingly claimed. The article included tweets from Twitter users complaining that the university was using taxpayer money to create a hotline for students offended by Halloween costumes.

The university’s 24-7 counselor is not a Halloween-specific service, and is offered year-round.

The advice to avoid offensive costumes is not coming just from college administrators. Fraternity and sorority councils at Tufts University also recently asked students to take “a united stance against offensive Halloween costumes” and warned students that there are consequences for wearing such costumes.

In a letter to fraternity and sorority members, the groups quoted the university’s dean of student affairs as saying, “The range of response for students whose actions make others in our community feel threatened or unsafe, or who direct conduct toward others that is offensive or discriminatory, includes [Office of Equal Opportunity] and/or [Tufts University Police Department] investigations and then disciplinary sanctions from our office that could run a wide gamut depending on what is brought to our attention and the impact of these actions on others.”

The mention of police investigating students wearing offensive costumes alarmed free speech advocates on and off campus.

“The notion that the campus police will investigate reports of inappropriate costumes, and that such investigations may lead to ‘serious disciplinary sanctions,’ is absurd,” Jake Goldberg, a Tufts student and founder of the free speech group Students Advocating for Students, wrote. “Wearing a costume that others do not like is not a crime in a free country, especially not on a college campus.”

Patrick Collins, a spokesman for Tufts, said that the university does not have a “Halloween costume policy,” and that the dean’s comments were meant to be taken as being about discrimination on campus more broadly.

“The letter in question was written by students, for students, to encourage a thoughtful and considerate celebration of Halloween within our diverse and inclusive community,” Collins said. “We commend the leaders of our Greek life councils for proactively raising these important issues with their fellow participants in Greek life and encouraging responsible behavior. We remain committed to a campus climate that protects free speech and an open and vigorous exchange of ideas.”

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