The Celts believed that on the night of October 31st, the boundary between the world of the living and the world of the afterlife was at its thinnest, allowing the dead to walk among the ancient terrified masses. While almost everything about the holiday has changed, Halloween is still a time when something hoped long-dead lives again, leaving terror and panic in its wake. For college administrators, this terror is not Uncle Brian’s reanimated skeleton lumbering into the living room. It’s racist Halloween costumes.
College students’ near-endless capacity to act like jagoffs has caused plenty of administrative problems over the decades. But, thanks to the magnifying power of the internet and social media, what in the 1980s might have been a week-long annoyance has the potential to turn into something much worse. All it takes is one viral post of a photo of a white kid in a sombrero at a frat house, or a forwarded evite to a “ghetto”-themed party, or one aggressively chill white chick in a headdress to turn what would have been a headache into a chainsaw massacre of a school’s brand.
This year, Please Don’t Dress Like a Racist, Kids season kicked off early. On Wednesday night, at the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse, a crowd of about 30 people (mostly students) showed up for a program on avoiding insensitive costumes. Posters advertising the event provocatively asked “Is Your Halloween Costume Racist?” For those frightful of the looming boogeyman of “PC culture,” lectures on what is and is not offensive is a spooky, scary concept indeed.
But Timothy Gongaware, interim chairman of the Department of Ethnic and Racial Studies, told The Daily Beast that it wasn’t meant to be a missive against fun. “One of UWL’s stated values is that of diversity, equity, and inclusion of all people and perspectives, and this event reflected that by providing the audience with an opportunity to consider the possible effects of actions, or the actions and reactions of others,” he said.
Part of the event’s success may lie in the fact that UW-LaCrosse hasn’t yet found itself the center of national conversation about racist Halloween costumes and how not to handle them. Other schools haven’t been so lucky.
Last year, the President of the University of Louisville apologized after photos surfaced of him hosting a Halloween party wherein attendees dressed in sombreros and bushy mustaches. Elsewhere, and years earlier, a “ghetto”-themed party that went viral at the University of Chicago left a ding on the school’s reputation and Google results. Connecticut’s Fairfield University suffered a similar embarrassment when its students hosted their own “ghetto party” in 2015.
For every school that doesn’t succeed at convincing its students to avoid offense, there’s a school that comes down too heavy-handed. Samantha Harris, director of policy research at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), tells The Daily Beast that colleges are “well within their rights” to encourage discussion and dialogue among their students, but they run afoul of student expression when they actually threaten to discipline students over clothing, as Rhodes College did last year against students who dressed up in costumes deemed “offensive.”
Harris adds that in recent years, the way colleges treat students has shifted. “As colleges become more corporatized, and the more students are seen as consumers rather than people there to get an education, universities respond to student demands like a company might respond to dissatisfied customers,” she said.
Halloween, with its massive potential to offend and subsequently embarrass, has become a veritable horror house for colleges, administrators, and students even attempting to hold a fruitful conversation around cultural sensitivity. The terrifying tale of Erika Christakis, for example, could be told around college administrator campfires. Last year, Christakis, then the associate master of Yale’s Silliman College, sent an email critical of the university’s role in policing Halloween costumes. Students responded by angrily confronting her husband, Nicholas, on campus, and later demanding Christakis lose her position. The pair eventually resigned from the college. The calls (for her resignation) were coming from inside the house!
Harris says that it isn’t a college’s job to shield students from discussion; it should encourage rather than interfere with intra-student discussions.
That’s what groups like Mailé Nguyen’s aim to accomplish. Nguyen is the president of Ohio University’s Students Teaching About Racism in Society (STARS), the group behind those now-so-famous-it’s-been-memed We’re a Culture, Not a Costume public-awareness campaign. The campaign, which started in 2011, features an array of people of different cultures and races posing with photos of people dressing in racial and culturally themed costumes, and aims to educate students about how costumes that appropriate other cultures can be hurtful. Athens, Ohio, where Ohio University is located, hosts a massive Halloween party every year.
Nguyen, whose group also leads cultural education programs on campus, tells The Daily Beast that they’re not interested in exacting punishment on students who wear the wrong thing: “Our goal isn’t to go out and tell people that they’re bad people for wearing these costumes. More to educate on why these costumes are hurtful.” The group’s message has been mostly well-received, although Nguyen notes the group receives an annual deluge of mail deriding the creeping menace of “PC culture.”
As for UW-LaCrosse’s Is My Costume Racist? event, Gongaware says it was a success. Not a single person showed up to mock it.
And so, like a horror movie monster, Halloween and all its confusing commensurate issues rises again, back from the dead once more. Maybe the ancient Celts were on to something.