“You wear the costume for one night. I wear the stigma for life.” This is the message of a poster campaign created by Ohio University students, to tell people to think twice before dressing up in Halloween costumes that draw on denigrating racist stereotypes. Far from “just for fun,” such costumes show how deeply embedded racist attitudes still are in our society.
The campaign by the group, Students Teaching About Racism in Society (STARS), resonates far beyond the Ohio University campus. Racist attitudes are still pervasive in U.S. culture today: Asian American activists have been criticizing the just-released movie Cloud Atlas for casting white, Western actors in “yellow face” to portray Asians. All of us should question the actions of a New Jersey storeowner who displayed a picture of President Barack Obama as a “witch doctor” and of a California man who hung a lynched effigy of President Barack Obama from a tree and has claimed it is just a “Halloween decoration.”
“We’re a culture, not a costume”
To make the point that “We’re a culture, not a costume,” each poster shows two figures, one in a costume based on racial stereotypes and one from a different racial or ethnic group who directly meets the gaze of the viewer.
An Asian American man is paired with a figure wearing glasses, carrying a bowl of white rice speared with chopsticks and a pile of textbooks. A woman wearing a hijab is shown next to a veiled figure in belly-dancing attire. An African-American man is shown beside a figure in blackface wearing a baseball cap and wielding a gun. A figure with a cigarette and a swollen belly appears beside a Latina woman. A guitar-playing, flannel-shirted figure poses beside a white student. An African-American student is next to a someone with her head wrapped in a scarf and animal skins draped over her chest.
The posters are displayed around the Ohio University campus. STARS’ goals are to
facilitate discussion about diversity and all isms (sexism, classism, heterosexism, ethnocentrism etc.) with an emphasis on racial issues. We aim to raise awareness about social justice, and promote racial harmony. Our job is to create a safe, non-threatening environment to allow participants to feel comfortable to express their feelings. Our guiding principle is based on the principle “Each One Teach One.”
Former STARS president Sarah Williams got the idea for the campaign, which first ran last year, after seeing a student in blackface at a party in 2010. Such reports and others of mock “slave auctions” (at an elementary school and by a Missouri professor on the steps of the old St. Louis courthouse) are potent wake-up calls about the persistent entrenchment of racism among us.
Indeed, disability activists were outraged when Ann Coulter called President Obama a “retard” on Twitter last week. Coulter has been seeking to defend herself for a remark that (understatement) insulted individuals with intellectual disabilities like my own son. I find her comments completely repulsive and indefensible as her remark also drew on deeply disturbing and false — and dangerous — assumptions about African-Americans’ intelligence.
Racist Halloween costumes, and comments like Coulter’s, are not “harmless.” As a STARS spokesperson, Laura Hyde, tells Colorlines.com, the posters are meant to combat such underlying discriminatory attitudes and promote much-needed ”awareness, dialogue and understanding about racism as well as all other forms of oppression and how they manifest themselves in our society today.”
What’s truly harmful, as well as shameful, is how some individuals are using a holiday that is supposed to be about kids having fun as an excuse to air antiquated and ugly ideas.
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Image courtesy of STARS