Cultural Costumes Cause Controversy

Young and old alike have heralded Halloween across the nation, seconded only in enthusiasm by chain stores. Skeletons peek around doorways, jack-o-lanterns greet passersby and bats join their feathered brethren in the rafters.

However, for every pro there is a con. Candy causes stomachaches, carved-out pumpkins are a fire risk and costumes are… cultural appropriation?

The complaints pop up every year but lately the movement against politically incorrect costumes has gained momentum. Cultural appropriation is generally defined as one culture taking aspects from another and using them in a derogatory manner. During Halloween, this line becomes particularly easy to cross as masses compete for the funniest, most popular and most unique costumes.

Recent offenders include Mexican mariachis, Native American princesses and blackface renditions of raunchy hip-hop stars. This year in particular features the introduction of a Caitlyn Jenner transgender outfit and the sexy burka.

A perusal of the “Popular Costumes” category of the Party City website reveals an Adult Tribal Temptation Native American Costume, a Mystic Vixen Gypsy and a Sexy Day of the Dead Doll.

College campuses are taking measures against such costumes. Ohio University started the “We’re a Culture, not a Costume” poster campaign in 2011, which continued through 2013. The University of Washington emailed students a six-minute video on the subject. Virginia Wesleyan College hosted a dialogue titled “Halloween Costumes, Free Speech, Safe Zones, and Yale,” hosted by Dr. Craig Wansink.

Despite this, incidents still pop up every year. James Ramsey, president of the University of Louisville, issued an apology after he and staff dressed as a Mexican mariachi band. Two fraternities at the University of Illinois are in trouble for pictures posted on social media depicting culturally insensitive costumes during a party.

Even Virginia Wesleyan is not exempt from mistakes: last year one resident refused to take down a Confederate flag in their room and another dressed as a Ku Klux Klan (KKK) member. It may be interesting to note that the student in the latter incident was African American.

When events like these appear, the college’s response and behavior come under close scrutiny. The President’s Council on Inclusive Community (PCIC) works to create an inclusive community, its goal, as stated on the website, being to “foster a community at Virginia Wesleyan College where everyone feels welcomed and valued regardless of race, religion, color.” Despite this, the council has not yet met to discuss cultural appropriation, a term used to describe the adoption or use of elements of one culture in another, on campus. Members such as Dean of Freshman and Director of the Jane P. Batten Student Center Jason Seward and Director of Community Service Diane Hotaling deferred requests for comments to Vice President of Student Affairs Keith Moore.

Moore pointed to the Virginia Wesleyan Creed which says, “We value and respect diversity in all facets of our multicultural society.”

The Student Government Association (SGA) is restricted as well, despite being the link between the students and the staff on campus.

Nich Hipple, president of the SGA, said that according to its own rules, the organization was “unable to pursue any actions that could address cultural appropriation without having been told that it is an issue.” He encouraged students who note any instances of cultural appropriation to contact him or other senators.

However, with so few instances of cultural appropriation on campus, the question becomes whether Virginia Wesleyan needs programs or informational sessions on this topic at all.  

“If we don’t inform [students], we’re not doing justice as a liberal school,” said sophomore Shyail Owens, who emphasized that some people may be uneducated about cultural appropriation or lack access to information on minority issues.

Sophomore Nel Hart took a different stance.

“There’s no absolute need for it,” Hart said. “I haven’t seen anything like [blackface or yellowface].” She went on to say that it was a very “fluid” topic.

Some say the movement opposing cultural appropriation has spun out of control. What once applied to a very specific activitysuch as dressing up for Halloweenhas now spread to encompass everyday happenings. Under the banner of cultural appropriation, the following are now banned: yoga classes, culinary recipes not native to your school’s country and words such as “pledge,” “Greek” and “rush.” It may sound like a joke, but students at the University of Ottawa, Oberlin College and the University of California Merced aren’t laughing.

Students here don’t want that kind of mania spreading to Virginia Wesleyan. “Unbelievable” and “unnecessary” were the two most common responses to such stories.

“If it’s not hurting anyone, go for it,” said Marco Paola DaSilva, a senior. He admitted that the movement had good roots, but thought attacking everyday activities was too far.

“When you’re taking down [stuff like] yoga classes, it’s just ridiculous.”

Mickella Rast