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Column: My Culture is Not a Costume

By Dr. Katrina Caldwell and Dr. Noel Wilkin
Vice Chancellor for Diversity & Community Engagement, Provost & Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs

As the season of fall parties and Halloween celebrations approaches, a disturbing trend on college campuses involves students and campus organizations engaging in culturally inappropriate behavior.

Some examples include the use of blackface, costumes that mock or demean other people’s culture, and identity-based slurs. While most of these cases involve examples of protected speech and expressions, we want our community to understand that these practices are both insensitive and rooted in a history of hate that causes real harm to individuals and our community.

Last week, the Bias Incident Response Team (BIRT) received a report from a student who admitted to posing in blackface on one of the student’s social media accounts. The student recognized the immediate impact of this behavior, reached out to staff, expressed remorse, and has already begun engaging in a voluntary educational process that includes curricular, experiential, and reflective components.

While we are encouraged by the fact that the student self-reported the image, we decided to make this incident and its outcome public to show our commitment to be transparent about BIRT reports that have potential community impact.

Additionally, given that the primary function of BIRT is to understand trends that inform both individual and community education, below are some tips and questions to consider as you prepare for themed events and celebrations:

Is my costume intended to be funny? Is it funny because it is making fun of real people, human traits, or cultures?

Does my costume attempt to represent or mock a culture that is not my own?

Does my costume perpetuate stereotypes, misinformation, or historical and cultural inaccuracies?

Does my costume packaging include the following words “traditional”, “ethnic”, “colonial”, “cultural”, “authentic” or “tribal”?

Would I be embarrassed or ashamed if someone from the group I am portraying saw me wearing this?

Another important thing to remember is that social media posts are never private and irony/sarcasm does not come across as intended on social media.

As shared recently in public meetings, BIRT is working on a format for regular community updates and guidelines for when a public notification of reports will be warranted. Our university community is stronger and more effective when we take responsibility for actions that minimize the dignity of others.

For additional resources and information, please contact the Office of Diversity and Community Engagement.

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