Editorial: On culture, not costume, and the online vilification of ignorance

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In light of recent events on campus, it is necessary to address privilege and ignorance at the University. When several students dressed up for Halloween as homeless people, replete with sexualized costumes and signs perpetuating rape culture, it sparked outrage among students and faculty alike.

The debate over free speech and expression versus compassion and clemency arises every year around Halloween, where people across the United States push the limits on what is acceptable. Every person can likely recall someone who has dressed as a Native American, a geisha, or, say, a homeless person. While completely within their limits as American citizens with the right to dress however they choose, these actions reflect an inadequacy in the education of those with privilege.

Donning a “costume” that is another person’s everyday garb or cultural expression is offensive and unnecessary. It refuses to acknowledge the unavoidable struggles faced by that person. These include institutionalized discrimination, cultural imperialism, systemic racism, and socioeconomic divides too great to bridge in our current society. In dressing up as someone impacted by these barriers, it is more than likely that no offense was intended.

However, intent and impact are very different concepts, and students must be aware that their ignorance will not be brushed off and forgotten. On a college campus such as ours that has been criticized for a lack of diversity, it is even more important to consider the ramifications of our actions, even if the harm was not deliberate.

The costumes were, somewhat unsurprisingly, immortalized when one student posted a picture of the costumes online. Screenshots and reposts of the original post multiplied quickly in the hours and days following the actual costume-wearing, inviting commentary from anyone who was able to see it, including strangers with little to no affiliation to the University.

The initial topic of the mocking of an already marginalized and disadvantaged group of people quickly turned to the question of whether the appropriate venue for expressing public opposition is online, where the perpetrators of this ignorant and inconsiderate act were vilified in comments and shares.

Part of the utility of sharing the incident online and bringing it to conversations among peers is that it removes the normalcy and acceptance that is currently perpetuated by those who condone and partake in marginalizing groups of people outside of the norm. Bringing an issue to light is not always about solving it; sometimes it’s about visibility and education. Regardless of your position on the issue, it is important to engage in open and honest dialogue with peers, professors, and staff.

Accidental or not, appropriation is an offense that cannot and should not be ignored by members of the community. And while the online response to this incident had questionable hints of public humiliation, the value of candid and difficult conversations likewise cannot be ignored.

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