No blackface. No squaw costumes. No pimps and hookers. After a year of protests about race at campuses across the country, and a string of racist incidents this fall, some college officials are asking students to think twice about their costumes — and flat-out telling them to avoid some.
“Our thing is about teaching students about how to enjoy the holiday without being extremely offensive,” said Carolyn Barber-Pierre, assistant vice president for multicultural affairs at Tulane University.
But with the ongoing debate about political correctness and free speech on campuses across the country, efforts at some schools are generating eye-rolling from some on campus, who say people should be able to dress up in silly costumes without being accused of racism, and negative headlines in conservative media.
It is a fraught topic. Last year at Yale University, when an instructor pushed back against costume guidelines, some students were so upset that their debate, added to another alleged racist incident, spiraled into protests. Erika Christakis wrote about the experience a year later for The Washington Post, including this:
“I don’t wish to trivialize genuine concerns about cultural and personal representation,” I wrote, in part. “I know that many decent people have proposed guidelines on Halloween costumes from a spirit of avoiding hurt and offense. I laud those goals, in theory, as most of us do. But in practice, I wonder if we should reflect more transparently, as a community, on the consequences of an institutional (which is to say: bureaucratic and administrative) exercise of implied control over college students.”
Some called my email tone-deaf or even racist, but it came from a conviction that young people are more capable than we realize and that the growing tendency to cultivate vulnerability in students carries unacknowledged costs.
. . . It’s never easy to foster dialogue about race, class, gender and culture, but it will only become more difficult for faculty in disciplines concerned with the human condition if universities won’t declare that ideas and feelings aren’t interchangeable. Without more explicit commitment to this principle, students are denied an essential condition for intellectual and moral growth: the ability to practice, and sometimes fail at, the art of thinking out loud.
Some universities are avoiding the topic entirely. At the California Institute of Technology, officials don’t offer any advice on costumes. But they do note they have an annual tradition of freezing pumpkins in liquid nitrogen and dropping them from the top of a nine-story building.
Some universities keep advice brief and simple: At the University of Colorado at Boulder, school officials told students: “If you are planning to celebrate by dressing up in a costume, consider the impact your decision might have on others. It’s advisable to avoid carrying fake weapons as they can appear real to law enforcement and others.”
At some universities, students have taken it on. At Tufts University, Greek leaders reminded fellow students that there could be consequences for costumes that offend or upset other students, as well as for unsafe drinking and sexual misconduct. That led to headlines that the university would “police” offensive costumes.
Patrick Collins, a spokesman for Tufts, responded with a written statement that praised the students for raising the issue, and noted:
Tufts University does not have a “Halloween costume policy.” The letter in question was written by students, for students, to encourage a thoughtful and considerate celebration of Halloween within our diverse and inclusive community and to stress the importance of alcohol safety and sexual consent at time of year when these issues are of particular concern.
We remain committed to a campus climate that protects free speech and an open and vigorous exchange of ideas. As is the case at any time, students whose actions are discriminatory or threaten others can face a range of administrative responses that, depending on the actions’ seriousness, can include disciplinary sanctions.
At the University of Texas at Austin, the Office of the Dean of Students offered guidelines (such as, “Ask yourself: What’s the joke: Why would someone laugh at my costume? Who are they laughing at?”) and lists of “harmful” costumes.
“The University of Texas Austin does not place limits on students’ freedom of expression,” a spokesman, J.B. Bird, wrote in an email. “Our philosophy is to educate students and remind them that they are accountable to each other and that their actions can negatively impact other members of the university community.”
At one university, it wasn’t the students wearing costumes that offended others — it was the president. The University of Louisville president apologized for a Halloween party last year at which guests wore stereotypical Mexican clothing and fake mustaches.
At Tulane, smack in the middle of some of the craziest of Halloween parties every year, university officials are asking for some reflection.
Halloween in New Orleans is like Mardi Gras, Tulane’s Barber-Pierre said, with tons of celebrations, parades, a huge music festival. “Because we’re in such a festive place that does a lot of costuming, does a lot of parties, it’s a lot more prevalent in this community; we feel we should at least make our students aware of these things. We’ve had some issues in the past — things students have done, organizations have done that have been offensive to others in our community.”
So this year, they have been trying to be a “a lot more intentional and conscious about what people are wearing, and we’ve been trying to educate our community.”
A student group set up a table on campus to talk about why certain costumes might offend people, the university offers a flier with suggestions, and it displayed costumes it finds dubious.
Barber-Pierre said that she spent a lot of time answering questions about the term “cultural appropriation,” and explaining that people can be offended by cartoonish depictions of their culture, or current events such as police shootings.
As she reeled through a list of costumes she has seen on campus or on social media — sexy Pocahontas, person in a hoodie with bullet holes — she said, “I think sometimes students just don’t think.”