With the proliferation of social media, offensive costumes and the inevitable outrage-apology cycle they generate have become something of an annual ritual.
This year’s offensive costume du jour belonged to a young man named Brock Denton, who attends the University of Central Arkansas, where he had pledged to be a brother of the Sigma Tau Gamma fraternity.
The sophomore decided to dress as Bill Cosby, the famous comedian who has been accused of sexual misconduct of various forms by at least 58 women, for a party that his fraternity threw Friday night in Conway, Ark., where the university is located.
Denton, who is white, covered his skin with black paint. In other words, he dressed in blackface.
Then, he posted a photograph of his seemingly purposefully offensive costume to his Instagram account with the caption “It was a bold night.”
From there, as the photograph went viral, the wildfire of outrage spread voraciously.
Brock posted a long apology on his Instagram, which is set to private. The Echo, UCA’s student newspaper, captured an image of it.
In it, Brock wrote, “I can honestly say I’ve never heard of black face before until today. Believe me or don’t but at this point all I can do is be truthful.”
The outrage only intensified.
“Crazy that in 2016 there are still people who ‘have no idea’ that blackface is offensive,” tweeted one user.
Another user called him “human trash.”
“Brock Denton has got to be the dumba– of 2016,” tweeted a third. “Mommy and Daddy will cover him though.”
A parody Twitter profile even popped up. It used the name “BrockDentonfromUCA” and its bio read, “Black face is so f—ing cool to me.”
He had his defenders, but not many. One tweeted, “Brock Denton, a racist? That’s about the last damn thing he is. Our generation is screwed with all the over sensitive and entitled brats.”
The national chapter of Sigma Tau Gamma suspended the UCA chapter and expelled Denton from the fraternity.
The University of Central Arkansas’s president, Tom Courtway, responded with a written statement that the school posted to Twitter.
Statement from President Courtway pic.twitter.com/BkUgxEXh0H
— U. Central Arkansas (@ucabears) October 29, 2016
It read, in full:
A short time ago we were made aware of a picture on social media showing what is purported to be a UCA student wearing blackface. This picture is highly offensive and repugnant, and this representation goes against all we, at UCA, believe in and stand for.
This institution embraces all races, cultures and nationalities. We strive each day to be welcoming, inclusive and diverse, and will always continue to do so.
The matter will be investigated by the appropriate university offices, and we can assure the UCA family and all others that it will be dealt with accordingly.
As for Denton, he said in his apology that he has received several threats against his life.
“I have been sent death threats, threats to burn my house down. I am scared for my life,” he wrote.
Denton is one of many who find themselves apologizing for offensive costumes as morning puts an end to the annual revelry.
Former child actress Hilary Duff was among that number this year. She dressed as a pilgrim and boyfriend Jason Walsh dressed as a Native American. A photo of the couple made the rounds on Twitter, and the expected outrage followed.
The two, of course, quickly apologized on social media.
I am SO sorry to people I offended with my costume.It was not properly thought through and I am truly, from the bottom of my ❤️sorry.
— Hilary Duff (@HilaryDuff) October 30, 2016
Outrage concerning costumes and cultural appropriation appears to have a long memory. Actor Chris Hemsworth just apologized for donning a Native American-style headdress at a New Year’s Eve “Lone Ranger”-themed party — in 2015.
Standing with those who are fighting to protect their sacred land and water. #nodapl #waterislife #mniwiconi @taikawaititi I would also like to take this opportunity to raise something that has been bothering me for sometime. Last New Year's Eve I was at a "Lone Ranger" themed party where some of us, myself included, wore the traditional dress of First Nations people. I was stupidly unaware of the offence this may have caused and the sensitivity around this issue. I sincerely and unreservedly apologise to all First Nations people for this thoughtless action. I now appreciate that there is a great need for a deeper understanding of the complex and extensive issues facing indigenous communities. I hope that in highlighting my own ignorance I can help in some small way.
As The Washington Post’s Ben Guarino noted, “Along with collecting candy and carving pumpkins, pointing out racist, offensive or ill-conceived costumes has become something of an annual Halloween tradition. (For a seven-year run, the late website Gawker documented October spikes in blackface.) Colleges and universities have entered the fray this year, cracking down on outfits that stereotyped or sexualized minorities.”
Consternation about what costumes are appropriate and which are racially offensive has reached such heights that The Post published what amounts to a guide of what is okay to wear on the spookiest night of the year. In it, Carolyn Barber-Pierre, assistant vice president for multicultural affairs at Tulane University, told The Post, “Our thing is about teaching students about how to enjoy the holiday without being extremely offensive.”
As The Post’s Susan Svrluga reported, “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.”
The stereotypical offensive-costume story has become a genre unto itself now, and much of the aforementioned consternation probably comes from the story of Erika Christakis.
Christakis and her husband, professor Nicholas Christakis, were the associate head and head, respectively, of Silliman College, one of Yale University’s undergraduate residential colleges.
Last Halloween, in response to some seemingly obvious advice offered by Yale administrators about how to avoid an offensive costume, Erika Christakis penned an email asking students to consider the guidelines from a more subversive standpoint, arguing that it might not be the school’s place to decide what is offensive in advance.
She wrote, “Whose business is it to control the forms of costumes of young people? It’s not mine, I know that.”
The Atlantic dubbed the email, “a model of relevant, thoughtful, civil engagement.”
It caused outrage. One student, caught on camera screaming in Nicholas Christakis’s face, called him “disgusting” and said, “You shouldn’t sleep at night.”
The two eventually resigned their posts at Silliman. In The Post, Chistakias recently reflected on the experience, writing:
I had hoped to generate a reflective conversation among students: What happens when one person’s offense is another person’s pride? Should a costume-wearer’s intent or context matter? Can we always tell the difference between a mocking costume and one that satirizes ignorance? In what circumstances should we allow — or punish — youthful transgression?
That, of course, was not the outcome of her email.
Correction: This post has been edited for clarity. Brock Denton has been expelled from his fraternity, not UCA.
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