Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Race to Action, a new student group known on campus for organizing the Ferguson Remembrance event in late September, has recently started a new initiative to kickstart a dialogue surrounding cultural appropriation on campus. This week posters appeared across campus, encouraging students to consider how some Halloween costumes may send the wrong message about a culture — geishas, slaves, rappers, and suicide bombers, just to name a few. This effort continued on Thursday, October 30, where Race to Action members took photos of students to use in a campaign about cultural appropriation.
Race to Action created this campaign to get students thinking about how their costume choices affect others and disrespect fellow students’ cultures. Louis Laine ’16, a member of Race to Action, said, “We’re […] raising awareness on why cultural appropriation is bad. Beyond just Halloween, but in general why is it bad to generalize people’s cultures.” Another member of Race to Action, Arjun Raghuraman ’16, said, “[The project] really gives voice to the people about all the variety of concerns that people have that may not generally get heard […] There are a lot of different aspects to this that people don’t consider at first.”
After this campaign began, students made several Facebook posts within Swarthmore class Facebook groups discussing whether certain costumes would be appropriate for this weekend’s Halloween party. Other than the list of possible costumes that Race to Action included on the flyer, the group has not released a conclusive list of Halloween dos and don’ts, as Raghuraman pointed out. The goal is not to tell students what to do, but rather allow them to make informed decisions, said Laine.
Chastity Hopkins ’15 and Julia Wakeford ’18 have been open to answering students’ questions about their costumes. Wakeford identifies as Creek, Yuchi, and Osage and uses her experiences to share her views with the Swarthmore community, though she acknowledges that her views and opinions are in no way reflective of the entire native community. When asked how she approaches student questions, Wakeford said, “I think that no one wants to be told that they offend people, or that they could be wrong. So in my opinion, I prefer to take a more educational stance. I find that as people understand, hear personal accounts they become more aware of the problems of cultural appropriation.”
While Wakeford’s approach comes from personal experiences, Hopkins is passionate about sharing her views because she came from a small conservative town. She said, “I didn’t think about these things growing up [but] Swarthmore was the place I learned to challenge that” and she hopes to pay it forward. When asked how she approaches talking about this sensitive topic, Hopkins said, “Coming from a point of view that isn’t condescending is crucial because it puts people off and delegitimizes what you’re fighting for.”
Despite active campus conversations surrounding appropriate Halloween costumes, some students question how they should react should they be offended during this weekend’s events. Hopkins said, “Most people would be reasonable and willing to talk to you and, if you felt uncomfortable, they would most likely apologize because no one goes out on Halloween thinking ‘I can’t wait to offend and disrespect and make people feel uncomfortable.’ Many are mistakes that people will be willing to own up to and learn from, which is the most organic way to get our message across.” Additionally, Wakeford said, “I also think there are varying degrees of ‘appropriation’ and that being quick to call people out can undermine part of the message itself. Not all leather fringe or feathers, to me, are automatically appropriating my culture. The point where I feel it becomes a problem is when our ceremonial and spiritual items and regalia are being used in fashion. Also, be aware that discussing this with drunk college students may not be the best time to approach this. Ask yourself, what will be taken away from this conversation?”
And while Hopkins and Wakeford are eager to recount their experiences and offer advice to fellow students, Race to Action hopes to inspire even more students to join the conversation. Laine said, “The idea was not to impose anything on anyone, but we wanted people to think for themselves and consider what they want to wear.” And although Laine and Raghuraman acknowledge that it is important that this discussion continue after Halloween, both hinted at future prospects for the group. Laine said, “Our next project will be focused on Race to Action solidifying itself within itself.”
Images courtesy of Louis Laine ’16 and Steve Sekula ’17.