'Racist' Halloween costumes stir debate

An Ohio student group's campaign has started a firestorm of debate in Canada and abroad over whether wearing Arab, Spanish and other ethnically inspired garb is proliferating stereotypes and feeding racism.

The campaign, by Ohio University's Students Teaching About Racism in Society (STARS), features posters headlined "We're a culture, not a costume." Underneath the line, "This is not who I am, and this is not okay" are students of various ethnic backgrounds holding up photos of people wearing blackface, or dressed up as natives, Geisha girls or people depicting "terrorists," for example.

Contacted by CBC News on Wednesday, a spokeswoman with the Athens, Ohio-based university said STARS was receiving an overwhelming number of requests for media interviews around the world, and may not return calls immediately.

STARS had garnered more than 8,000 views on president Sarah Williams's blog, but the comment section was disabled due to inappropriate and hateful comments from some visitors. Still, Williams told ABCNews.com the campaign was worthwhile: "We wanted to highlight these offensive costumes because we've all seen them. We just wanted to say, 'Hey, this is not cool. This is offensive and this shouldn't be taken lightly.' It's offending a culture and people should be aware."

Canadian reaction to the campaign has ranged from huge congratulations for raising awareness about the ills of proliferating stereotypes, to accusing STARS of making something out of nothing.

Brent Farrington, a campaigner with the Ottawa-based Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), applauded the Ohio school's poster campaign.

"There have been cases in Canada over the last couple of years that have really highlighted the fact that our campuses aren't quite as free from racism as people think," he told CBC News Wednesday.

Farrington said CFS launched a task force two years ago on campus racism in Ontario that concluded a lot of students do not believe university administrations and communities are doing enough to counteract racism. Three years ago at Ryerson University in Toronto, for instance, an email sent March 7 with the subject line "KKK-White Power" criticized the student union for inviting Black Panthers to the campus, alleging it was trying to promote black supremacy.

Farrington says most racism-related instances reported to CFS involve "individual students feeling marginalized in communities," including not being asked to participate in certain school projects.

In an email interview, University of Toronto researcher Alison Chasteen noted other recent examples of Canadians wearing racially offensive costumes, such as last year at a Royal Canadian Legion Halloween party in Ontario and this year at a university in Montreal.

"We know from past research that exposure to stereotypical images can activate stereotypes in people's minds and influence their subsequent behaviour," said Chasteen, an associate professor who researches stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination. "That is why efforts such as this one in Ohio are needed to educate people about racist images in an attempt to reduce stereotypical portrayals of minority groups."

Regardless, the virtual world was filled with commenters and bloggers slamming the STARS campaign.

RussianInCanada commented on one media website: "Those guys have completely lost their minds, to say nothing of tolerance and sense of humour. ANY Halloween costume is offensive to some group. How about discourtesy to not-so-sexy-nurses? Or being disrespectful to the dead? Halloween itself is offensive to many, as well as such celebrations as Christmas (because not everyone is Christian in North America). Shall we ban these holidays altogether? No more Christmas tree on Times Square?!! Down with Easter eggs and bunnies in shop windows?"

New Westminster, B.C., blogger Jarrah Hodge, a UBC graduate in women's studies and sociology, said costume companies are constantly coming up "with new ways to advance racial stereotypes and cultural appropriation, and sexualize women in every single profession and identity you could think of."

On her "Halloween Post," Hodge said she recently came across a distinctly Canadian racist costume called the "Eskimo Tease." The packaging for the outfit shows a buxom and lean blond in a cropped velvety long-sleeved top, a short flared skirt, a hoodie and legwarmers — all white-fur trimmed and made of velvety light blue material.

"The term 'Eskimo,' while a highly contested term, has a racist past and is generally unacceptable in Canada," Hodge writes. "The picture on the packaging and the costume name continues in the tradition of other racist costumes like the ever-popular 'Geisha Girl' or 'Pocahontas' in implying that racial identity can be boiled down to a recognizable outfit. It's white people creating symbols to define other races, then appropriating those symbols without any acknowledgment of their history."

Farrington says there's never an excuse for making light of someone's background, even if it seems like harmless Halloween fun.

"There's a cultural shift that seems to think it's OK and funny [to wear blackface or other ethnic Halloween costumes], but it's not OK and funny," he says.

"You can't mock someone's culture one day a year and think it's good fun."

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