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Is This Racist?

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

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Written by Pegleess Barrios

Guelph residents can dress up and be anyone or anything we want for a night, or even a weekend. Or can we? 

This Halloween season, representatives of the CSA and the CJ Mumford Centre hosted a night at the Bullring, discussing cultural appropriation. The event aimed to answer students’ questions about cultural appropriation, helping to define what it is, how it affects our community, who it affects, who benefits, who suffers, and what we can do in our community.

Whether students choose to participate in Halloween activities or not, it is nearly impossible to escape Halloween practices both on and off campus – from interacting with students in costumes in Branion Plaza, to themed parties, and free candy in the UC courtyard. Therefore, a costume choice has potential to affect not only the wearer, but those around them.

The event was held at the Bullring on Thursday, October 23, right before the first weekend students often choose to begin their Halloween partying. The Bullring was filled with people excited to learn more about the hot-button issues of appropriation and racism, especially as conversations on cultural appropriation have been gaining traction on social media recently, reflecting in policy developments from some popular music festivals, such as the one held annually in Glastonbury. From the approximately 150 people in attendance, the majority of them were University of Guelph students.

The hosts, well-known representatives of the CSA, the CJ Mumford Centre and a few campus clubs, began the event by introducing themselves and some key concepts. They defined cultural appropriation as the adoption of elements of one culture by another culture, which might be translated as wearing or imitating cultures, stereotypes, races, ethnicities, religions, etc. in an offensive manner. They elaborated on this definition by saying that cultural appropriation comes with a long history of prejudice, discrimination, hate, violence, slavery and colonization; it disempowers and perpetuates stereotypes, white supremacy, and oppression.

After defining terms and setting the rules for the debate, the discussion began. The hosts showed images of appropriating costumes on a screen, and asked the question, "Is this racist?" Attendees then had to move to different spots in the Bullring depending on whether their answer to that was "Yes", "No", or "Maybe", and discuss their responses within those groups. This was sometimes difficult since so many people were moving to the "Yes" group immediately, but students were able to amicably solve the transition issues and many decided to split into smaller groups to facilitate discussion. After a 15 minute talk about the image shown, each group then chose a representative to present their point of view to the whole group.Following a panel discussion on each group's view, the hosts then showed historical and other background information that gave more context as to how each costume was perpetuating oppression and/or racism. 

The first image shown was a photo that went viral last Halloween, of Julianne Hough dressed up as the character "Crazy Eyes" from the hit Netflix series, "Orange is the New Black". Hough donned the orange jumpsuit worn by characters on the show, put her hair up in little braids...and painted her skin dark brown. The majority of those attending the event ran straight to the "Yes it is racist" side to discuss Hough's costume choice, but a small group stayed behind. Those that did not believe it was racist felt that the face paint added to the authenticity of the costume, and felt it was not racist because Hough dressed up as a fictional character, not as a general representation of people of colour. Those who believed it was racist, however, held the majority opinion. This was based on the history of theatre and the media representation of people of colour in the past, where white actors painted their faces black and performed racist comedic sketches, called "blackface". As another panel member brought up, blackface promotes the idea that "all black people [look/]are the same", which is entirely untrue, and she gave the example of how the students in the room of African descent all were different colours, as opposed to a uniform shade of black.

The second image was of Iggy Azalea, dressed in a sari. In this image, Azalea is in front of a group of women, probably of South Asian descent, dressed in saris. However, Iggy is the only one posing sexually, and the posing and composition of the image indicates that she is the dominating character in the group.

There was a wider range of opinions to this image. While some felt very strongly about it not being racist, many who shared this opinion found it hard to back up, with one member of the discussion saying it was just "Iggy being Iggy". Those who found it racist said it was because Iggy Azalea was sexualizing the sari and appeared to be asserting white dominance over the South Asian women in her video, as well as blatantly appropriating from their culture. However, it was decided that context was appropriate, and some people in the discussion felt it would be acceptable to wear a sari in other situations, such as if a Caucasian person were invited to a religious or cultural ceremony where saris would be worn, and invited to wear one as well.

Although the responses appeared very two-sided, there was much gray area discussed in the smaller groups. Many people, although they thought the costume was racist, wanted to give the celebrities wearing them the benefit of the doubt and frame it as a teaching situation rather than condemn them for racism. Another topic often discussed was the context in which outfits were worn, and whether that should weigh into opinions of whether or not it was an appropriative or racist gesture, or an appreciative celebration of a culture.

The event was well received, however many attendees were left with unanswered questions. Some felt they would like more clarification on what popular clothes or accessories should not be worn because of offensive meanings or appropriative issues. Others said they would have liked more information on how to approach people wearing racist costumes, or how to diplomatically educate people on the histories of oppression that they may be perpetuating through their choice of costume. The CSA has responded saying they will be making some "Racism Cards" available to students before Halloween, for students to give to people wearing racist costumes, with a little blurb explaining why the costume is offensive and what they can do to help.

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