Letter to the Editor: I hope this letter doesn’t offend you

To the Editor,

Halloween, a common holiday favorite of drunk and disorderly college students, has become a divisive platform for discussion of “offensive,” “distasteful,” or “insensitive” costumes. Last year, the cultural appropriation of Native American, Mexican, African, Russian, and many other heritages was the hot topic of the self-proclaimed Halloween political-correctness police. As we enter a generation of hyper-senstive college students, requiring constant “trigger-warnings,” who demand hyper-social awareness, it is important to stop and reflect why these issues are issues in the first place.

Wearing a feather skirt, headband, and brown leather skirt is problematic, yes. However, the problem is not that you are not Native American. Rather, the issue is the symbolic meaning behind a white upper-middle class American dressing as a Native American. Native Americans are still dealing with the consequences of white colonizers. The colonizers took Native Americans’ land, destroyed their homes, killed millions of their people, and delineated specific places of “existence.” However, the real issue of the costume is that America continues to treat Native Americans as colonized people. As you read this, police armed with tanks, sound cannons, and sniper rifles have descended on a Native American group protesting development of a pipeline on the land we gave them. To wear the cultural uniform of a Native American as a non-Native American college student displays a complete lack of comprehension for the atrocities Native Americans have faced and continue to face. It is not enough that we all but destroyed (and continue to destroy) their people and land; but now we are taking the one thing that they have sole claim to–their own distinct culture—as our own.

Similarly, three Bucknell students who chose to dress up as “homeless,” complete with playful innuendo signs like “I’m homeless, buy me a drink,” did not mean to offend anyone. They did not understand their actions. The girls deeply regret their choice of dress. Many steps have been taken within the Greek community to prevent any more “offensive” costumes. Students, both graduated and current, reprimanded, ridiculed, and ranted about the disrespectful and offensive nature. Criticisms of  “white privilege,” “ignorance,” “lack of thought”—although all valid—failed to touch the real issue. The issue is a lack of clear comprehension as to why this costume is problematic.

A homeless man on the street may have been offended by the costume. Or, perhaps, he may have said he doesn’t care what students are wearing. He would probably say what he really cares about is where and when he is going to get his next meal, his next shower, the means (in terms of education and place of residence) to apply for a job. What he needs is systemic changes that allow him the means to attain these things, he needs better health care, less income inequality, an end to systemic racism. He needs students who demand changes, who reflect on the meaning behind what he has to wear—not an apology.

Bucknell students, do you see the problem? We do not prevent the fundamental systemic issues of racism, inequality, prejudice by living in constant fear of offending each other. We prevent them by thinking, articulating, and analyzing why these things are offensive in the first place. Chastising three students for their costume choice is superficial.

Why is it that our whole school gets outraged about this, an arguably insignificant problem given the multitude of other issues going on. Why are we not talking about rape, the corruption of our pseudo-democratic government, systemic racism, mass incarceration? Why is the most divisive campus conversation about whom is most offended and why; meanwhile, sea levels are about to rise high enough within our lifetime to destroy most major cities in the world?

Many of us are graduating in the coming months. Many of us will head into careers within finance, government, consulting, or various other lucrative careers our prestigious university prepares us for. When the time comes, as you take your lunchtime stroll down Wall Street it will not be enough to give some of your cash to Fred, the homeless man outside your office building. If you feel a small contribution absolves you of any further thought to Fred’s condition, then you did not understand the point of this letter. It is only enough when you walk into your office, think about how your business operates, and question why you, and all your coworkers, are making so much while a Fred freezes and starves outside your building begging for some sort of change. It’s not the change from your morning latte Fred, and so many others need—it’s a change in how we think about the issues in our society—it’s systemic, institutional change.

I hope this letter doesn’t offend you.

Sincerely,

Emma Downey

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