The Cream of the Rotten Crop | Mike Yam

Year after year, there is inevitably some incident in the media where an individual or group of people are publicly called out for wearing racist costumes during Halloween or other party seasons. For example, we've seen plenty of celebrities chastised for wearing offensive, racist, and distasteful costumes. As if on cue, shortly after Halloween this year, Canada's major media outlets reported on a party held by Queen's University students after comedian Celeste Kim posted pictures on her Twitter account that were originally posted in a private Queen's students Facebook group and denounced the attendees.

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The party, which consisted of a drinking tournament and carried the theme of “countries around the world,” had predominately white party-goers dressing up as various ethnic and cultural groups. This was not a celebration of international cultural diversity – it was an organized party that encouraged attendees to characterize people from around the world by dressing in stereotypical costumes. Somehow, no one seemed to think that a group of white bros representing Mexicans by wearing orange prison jumpsuits and sombrero hats was a problem. Perhaps the group of white bros assigned to dress up as Arabs thought they were being progressive by putting on fake moustaches and sunglasses to dress up as sheiks instead of donning an overdone “terrorist look”.

We’ve been seeing the same story play out time after time. A bunch of white students are photographed wearing racist costumes and without apparently being familiar with the concept of cultural appropriation, they subsequently plead innocence and defend themselves by saying that they “didn’t mean to do any harm” and were “just having fun.” Some of them point to the odd person of colour who participated in the action, which leads them to conclude that the racist costumes were legitimized and everything was OK.

The other response is to double-down and insist that their critics are overzealous social justice warriors and/or that people of colour are just being over-sensitive. In an almost hilarious (if not incredibly upsetting) piece of commentary, former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s son – who is currently a Commerce student at Queen’s – argued that the incident wasn’t racist and that the media “pushes its agenda at expense of the facts” in response to the many news articles covering the story.

These types of incident are all too common, especially when it comes to university campuses. The ones that have gained significant media coverage over the years included a white Queen’s student dressing up in blackface as ‘Miss Ethopia’, the University of Toronto students who won a Halloween costume prize after dressing up in blackface as the Jamaican bobsled team from Cool Runnings, and history truly repeating itself five years later after a group of Brock University students won $500 as the bobsled team in a Brock Halloween pub night contest. It’s almost surprising that no one had donned blackface in this most recent incident.

We all know that these incidents happen every year during Halloween and that most of them don’t make the news. Many are shocked when these campus stories do come out, because the behaviour is so offensive and there’s some elevated expectation that this shouldn’t happen because universities are supposed to be places for critical discourse and enlightened understanding of the world. But perhaps it makes obvious sense that this happens frequently in the university community. In these particular university cases, the events have been organized and people rewarded for their racism. Like all micro-aggressions, these don’t happen in a vacuum.

After all, the composition of Ontario university campuses is comprised of disproportionately of young, white people who come from middle and upper class families. While there are obviously some campuses that are more diverse than others, the composition of our campuses reflects the fact that post-secondary education has become less and less affordable during the last several of decades.

Unfortunately, this seems especially the case when I think of the Queen’s University campus. Having attended Queen’s, I have trouble imagining it as a hub of progressive activism that has been organically cultivated from the diversity of its student body. Instead, I think of an old white school with children of elite white parents, with a mix of people of colour (who are also relatively privileged), along with a small and mighty group of progressives that continue with the relentless work that is under-appreciated by the rest of the student body.

I am thinking of a university where police had to shut down riots, not because of contentious political issues, but because too many students were getting too drunk and destroying too much property during the school’s homecoming celebrations. We’re talking about an institution that passively develops a culture of racism by upholding ‘important’ values including patriotic allegiance to the university, its athletic teams, and a history of elitism routed in white culture.

While university campuses have more recently been sites for amazing progressive work and activism, they have long been havens for the country’s privileged youth. As microcosms of broader Canadian society, we shouldn’t be surprised that explicit incidents of group racism occur. In the case of Halloween, it is just one of those special days that empower people to freely unleash their racist tendencies.

There are initiatives that are attempting to make a difference. Groups like STARS at the University of Ohio give us a glimmer of hope and invigorate our passion for anti-racism work. In Ontario, the PIRGs (Public Interest Research Groups) have been carrying on this type of work for years and, with the proper funding, will continue to be hubs of progressive activism.

The Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario had struck a Task Force on Campus Racism back in 2009. It heard from students and faculty across the province, concluding that systemic racism plagued Ontario university campuses. Systematic meaning in the classroom, at events, in student spaces, through student representation, faculty hiring and promotion, institutional policies, and through financial barriers that disproportionately impact people of colour negatively.

So, as we read yet another terrible costume story from a university campus, perhaps we need to be realistic: we still have a long way to go.