We’re a Culture Not a Costume (REPOST)

Fed up with the annual parade of white folks in blackface, “Indian squaws,” and other culturally insensitive Halloween costumes on their campus, a group of students at Ohio University decided to do something about it.

Members of the campus club STARS (Students Teaching Against Racism) created a poster series with the theme “We’re A Culture, Not A Costume,” featuring Halloween revelers dressed in costumes STARS members consider sterotypical and offensive.

The group says the intention of the posters is to:

“Educate and facilitate discussion about racism and to promote racial harmony and to create a safe, non-threatening environment to allow participants to feel comfortable to express their feelings.”

The campaign has definitely incited dialogue, though some of what is being posted on the Internet is not fit to be printed here. Melissa, who blogged about the poster campaign at her website Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, had to disable her comments due to the volume of racist  remarks she received.

Arizona University student, Kristine Bui, wrote this about the posters in her school’s paper:

“It’s hard to explain exactly what is so wrong about being a geisha or a sheik for Halloween. It’s unsettling. It’s a feeling I’ve always struggled to articulate — a discomfort that sort of just sits in the place between your heart and your stomach, quietly nagging. It’s a sense of being wronged without knowing exactly what was done to you.

“People who think racism is dead think so because they don’t see active discrimination. They think, ‘But minorities are allowed to do everything I’m allowed to do, so where’s the harm?’ STARS’ poster campaign calls attention to another problem: Minorities are often made into caricatures … As a minority, you’re a character, not a person. People dress up as you on Halloween. On TV, you’re the token black guy, easily replaced by some other black guy after one season.

“Racism is so much stealthier now. It doesn’t announce itself, and it’s complicated.”


STARS President ‘Sarah’ recently posted this update on her Tumbler page:

Any questions about the posters can be sent to OHIOUSTARS@GMAIL.COM. We are so proud of all the support but it’s overwhelming; We have less than 10 members in our group. lol We ask that you do not personally email any of the exec’s or message their personal tumblrs. Thank you guys so much for the love! The purpose was to educate and create dialogue and it did 🙂 We have a meeting with a lawyer on Monday so we can protect our posters and the posters will be all over Ohio University’s campus this week! Again, thanks for the support and have a happy Halloween!
Best, Students Teaching About Racism in Society (STARS) at Ohio University Executive board


Although I’ve never been one to wear ethnically stereotypical or disrespectful costumes, I am definitely thinking more deeply about this issue. These posters have inspired me  to take a mental inventory of my own Halloween costume choices over the years, and I don’t think a casual walk through the costume store will ever be the same.

Congratulations on all your hard work STARS. You’ve got people thinking, talking, and costume changing.

2 thoughts on “We’re a Culture Not a Costume (REPOST)

  1. I Don’t Get It.

    When I say I don’t ‘get it.’ I mean that I don’t accept the rationale behind why the outcry is focused on the costumes themselves. I don’t understand why the call is basically for White people NOT to do it. Full Stop.

    I mean why is it that we see costumes based on traditional dress racist? The usual refrain is: “we are a culture, not a costume.” But if this is the case, would it not also be proper for Whites to decry costumes based on horned Vikings (which are historically inaccurate btw) or medieval knights?

    Now the answer to my question is obvious. It’s not the same because of the disparity in power relations, and due to the vicious history of colonization that has imbued on to these images a different connotation.

    I get that.

    What I don’t get, is why this translates simply into: “Don’t wear that Whitey.”

    – – –

    *The above is an excerpt from my latest blog post:http://alexfelipe.wordpress.com/2012/11/01/thats-racist-but-not-how-you-might-think/

    (and in case you’re wondering, yes I am a person of colour myself…

    1. I don’t think the admonition to not offend is directed only at white folks. I think it is much easier for a white person to be offensive in culturally-specific or stereotypical costumes because of the power imbalance in the world as well as the historical realities that exist as it relates to white supremacy, manifest destiny, the white man’s self-described “burden” (to “civilize” others), etc.

      For example, a white woman donning an “Indian squaw” costume could be perceived as more hurtful or offensive because it was the decisions and actions of her direct ancestors (or if not their decisions, the benefits her ancestors enjoyed as a result of the decisions and actions of other whites) that led to the wholesale slaughter of millions of actual “squaws” Though she may not have been educated to be mindful of that slaughter, an actual “Indian” who is mindful of it might not appreciate the insult to injury created when they are confronted with the image of a white woman in “Indian drag.”

      Like Ms. Bui wrote, “It’s hard to explain exactly what is so wrong about being a geisha or a sheik for Halloween. It’s unsettling. It’s a feeling I’ve always struggled to articulate — a discomfort that sort of just sits in the place between your heart and your stomach, quietly nagging. It’s a sense of being wronged without knowing exactly what was done to you.”

      Some argue that choosing a culturally-specific costume is a way to “honor” a culture you admire, but I would not suggest it. I am in awe of the discipline and self-restraint of monks who take a vow of silence, and spend years in a monastery praying for world peace but I wouldn’t dress as one for Halloween as a way to honor that. TO me, it just feels demeaning and patronizing.

      I think it’s difficult to convey “Honor” when dressing up as a culture you genuinely admire and wish to show respect to. Halloween is not a good way to do that, so I wouldn’t.

      Regarding the posters and the idea behind them–I think a person who is mindful of not injuring others would welcome this kind of feedback from their peers. Someone who wants to retain the privilege of moving in the world in whatever way they deem “appropriate” with no concern for its affect on others will take exception to the admonition to be careful when choosing a costume.

      We’ll see them out again next year dressed as chemo patients, holocaust prisoners, African slaves and other impersonations of ACTUAL HUMAN BEINGS whose pain and oppression do not deserve to be parodied.

What do you think?

First Lady Michelle Obama’s Bestseller, ‘American Grown’
Desperate Ex-Skinhead Turns to Former Black Enemy to Escape Life of Hate