Amit Taneja and Mable Millner
A “slutty” nun. A domestic violence survivor with a black eye accompanied by her assailant. A victim of the Boston Marathon bombing. An ISIS/Muslim terrorist. Caitlin Jenner. Cecil the Lion’s Killer Dentist. White trash. “Crazy Eyes” from OITNB. What do these themes have in common? Not much, other than the fact that they comprise the internet’s lists of some of the most offensive and controversial Halloween costumes in the past few years.
Every year, we see news reports about problematic and offensive Halloween costumes and themed parties. Recent protests at UCLA after a “Kanye Western and Kardashians” themed party comprise a long list of events on college campuses that make some students feel devalued and marginalized.
As a Jesuit institution, our values are grounded in the call for us to be “men and women for and with others.” Furthermore, two prominent questions in our mission statement also ask “What are our obligations to one another? What is our special responsibility to the world’s poor and powerless?” These questions are not meaningless words, but outline the ethical and moral principles for us to co-exist in a respectful community on our campus and beyond.
In order to proactively promote more dialogue and education on these issues, our offices have partnered with a few different campus organizations to post Ohio University’s “We are a culture, not a costume” poster campaign. The staff of the Office of Residence Life and Housing, Human Resources the Student Government Association, and other campus leaders have signed on in an effort to create thoughtful dialogue around these issues. Our hope is that students can use these dialogues to contemplate their costume choices. We encourage students to ask critical questions of themselves, and one another. Here are some suggested questions for your consideration: How does my costume reflect my creativity and talents? How does my costume reflect particular historical contexts? Does my costume reinforce stereotypes associated with historically marginalized populations? Does it condone power, domination and violence towards others? Does it represent an appropriation of a culture that I am not part of? Does it represent my values, people and professions that I admire? What emotions might my costume evoke in others, and especially those whose identities are represented by my costume? And most importantly, what does my costume say about me?
Answering these questions requires introspection, understanding of history, and an ethic of care and empathy toward others. A “white trash” or “urban ghetto rapper” costume is not disconnected from stereotypes, history of blackface, or the lived experiences of some students, faculty and staff on our campus. Do we simply reflect the inequities in society for a cheap laugh, or do we push ourselves and use our gifts and graces to express our creativity, values and talents? The reflective questions we raise in this letter are part of the Jesuit discernment process, but know that ultimately the choice is yours. Let your imagination flow, and have a safe, fun and happy Halloween!
Contributed by Amit Taneja, Associate Provost for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, and Mable Millner, Associate Dean of Students for Diversity and Inclusion, and Director of the Office of Multicultural Education
This article was first published in the Crusader in 2015.