Halloween is just a week away, and this year, I’m going to dress up like a white person. But wait, won’t that be kind of offensive? I mean, most of the real-life white people I know don’t even actually like mayonnaise.
A white-person costume sounds pretty stupid, doesn’t it? Absurd, really. But costumes of any minority are totally cool. Super funny. Not awkward at all. Unless, of course, you’re the minority. In that case, you’re kind of like, “What the hell? Do you know any Asians who walk around in kimonos?”
In the parade of trendy movie character costumes and sexy (insert small animals here) outfits, there is always that one guy who decided it would be funny to be another race for the night, based on every stereotype in the book.
That guy is why I’m glad for Students Teaching About Racism in Society, the force behind one of the best campaigns I’ve ever seen.
STARS, a student organization at Ohio University, created a series of posters just in time for Halloween. In one, a Latino man holds up a picture of a white guy wearing a handlebar mustache, sombrero and poncho. There’s a stuffed donkey attached to the front, so that he looks like he’s riding it. Similar posters feature an Asian woman, a black woman, an Arab man and a Native American man. Across the top of each poster, the text says, “We’re a culture, not a costume. This is not who I am, and this is not okay.”
Finally. The “we’re not a costume” campaign may be timed for Halloween, but it’s a reaction to an attitude that’s accepted every day as normal.
It’s hard to explain exactly what is so wrong about being a geisha or a sheik for Halloween. It’s unsettling. It’s a feeling I’ve always struggled to articulate — a discomfort that sort of just sits in the place between your heart and your stomach, quietly nagging. It’s a sense of being wronged without knowing exactly what was done to you.
People who think racism is dead think so because they don’t see active discrimination. They think, “But minorities are allowed to do everything I’m allowed to do, so where’s the harm?” STARS’ poster campaign calls attention to another problem: Minorities are often made into caricatures.
And that’s why Ohio University’s Students Teaching About Racism in Society exists. STARS aims to “educate and facilitate discussion about racism and to promote racial harmony and to create a safe, non-threatening environment to allow participants to feel comfortable to express their feelings.”
STARS exists because racism is only playing dead. It manifests itself not in slurs and exclusion, but in stupid jokes and really inaccurate costumes. As a minority, you’re a character, not a person. People dress up as you on Halloween. On TV, you’re the token black guy, easily replaced by some other black guy after one season.
Racism is so much stealthier now. It doesn’t announce itself, and it’s complicated.
I eat a lot of rice. I’m an aggressive driver. My parents wish I were studying engineering. Sometimes the stereotypes are actually true, and it can be really funny when they are. But I’m also terrible at math and I never learned how to play the piano or the violin. Stereotypes aren’t my entire identity, and it’s definitely not funny or clever when people suggest they are.
You have to think twice about racism, about the little things that don’t seem like they should matter but do, like your Halloween costume.
The “we’re not a costume” posters make an impact because they finally say what should be said all the time and never is: Stop buying into stereotypes. Stop making me a parody of myself. This is not who I am, and this is not OK.
— Kristina Bui is the copy chief. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.