This October, Wellesley’s Counterpoint magazine sent out a poll to the Wellesley student body, asking whether they had ever worn a culturally appropriative Halloween costume. Answers ranged from those who’d worn such costumes unknowingly as small children to those who questioned what counted as cultural appropriation. There were even those who were irate defenders of cultural appropriation, feeling entitled to dress up in other people’s culturally significant attire, as though such cultures were costumes. Cultural appropriation is, no doubt, a confusing concept to many. However, that does not mean that college students have a right to “explore themselves” through wearing cultural clothing as a costume. It is disrespectful, offensive and a way of inflicting violence onto marginalized people. Not only does it mock people’s cultures, it erases a history of oppression that the dominant culture (white people) inflicted upon people of color.
Yale’s Committee on Intercultural Affairs understood just that when they sent out an email on Oct. 28 to Yale’s student body, advising students to be racially sensitive when picking out their costumes. It was a simple enough email, suggesting that students be respectful of their classmates. It asserted “Halloween is also 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. These same issues and examples of cultural appropriation and/or misrepresentation are increasingly surfacing with representations of Asians and Latinos.”
A lecturer in early childhood education at Yale and assistant house master, Erika Christakis, decided, ill-advisedly, to take that opportunity to intellectualize racism with another email to the student body urging them to allow themselves to make mistakes as young people in a learning environment. After all, what is college for, she argues, if not a safe space? Instead of lambasting the offensiveness of culturally appropriative costumes, she minimized the issue, and instead, decided to focus on what she considered to be “censorship of expression”, saying: “I wonder, and I am not trying to be provocative: Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious… a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive? American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience; increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition. [My husband] Nicholas says, ‘If you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended.’ Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society.”
It is no small wonder why there were huge protests by infuriated Yale students in the following days, and even, weeks.
First of all, Mrs. Christakis took a reasonable suggestion and twisted it into something it was not: a ban on free speech. The committee was not prohibiting students from wearing whatever costume they wanted but was simply caring for the needs of students who wouldn’t want to see their cultures treated with a lack of respect.
It is highly presumptuous for a white person, such as Mrs. Christakis, who is a member of the dominant culture, to effectively disregard the feelings of minorities who have the burden of seeing a whole gamut of offensive costumes every Halloween, to basically say that their safety and wellbeing does not matter, as long as their white peers had a chance to “mature”. Cultural appropriation refers to a particular power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group. This is apparent when, for example, white people wear Native American headdresses. More so, she essentially gave white students a free pass to be offensive, while suggesting that the offended “look away”. Are black students supposed to look away when white people don blackface, which was used in minstrel shows to portray black people as subhuman? Once again, white people in this country were giving a chance to be “young” and “regressive”, at the expense of people of color.
Indeed, Mrs. Christakis’ plea on the behalf of offensive costumes is characteristic of America’s one sided view of respect and tolerance. White people are allowed to be “provocative” and don blackface, which was historically meant to dehumanize black people, while black people are supposed to be tolerant and respect their freedom of expression. Black people are not extended the same courtesy of tolerance and sensitivity. Likewise, Native Americans are supposed to be understanding of the importance of young white people’s “room to be a little bit obnoxious” by debasing Native American culture through wearing head dresses as a fashion statement and “look the other way”.
“Let kids be kids” is the outcry when anyone dares to take away young white people’s entitlement to be offensive. After all, college is supposed to be a safe space. Yet, young people of color are given the short end of the stick. Higher institutions of learning prioritize white feelings over people of color’s pain. As always, white students get to be young and stupid at the cost of students of color’s wellbeing.
Photo courtesy of Cosmopolitan