Ohio Univ. Students to Classmates: ‘We’re a Culture, Not a Costume’

Controversy surrounding racist Halloween costumes have become a routine part of the holiday on college campuses. Some Ohio University students decided to get in front of the problem this year--and they're making a national sensation doing so.

By Jorge Rivas Oct 25, 2011

An awful lot of people agree with the infamous words of "Mean Girls" character Cady: "Halloween is the one night a year when girls can dress like a total slut and no other girls can say anything about it." She could have gotten more agreement still by adding, "Halloween is the one night a year when people think it’s OK to dress in totally inappropriate and racist costumes."

Ohio University student Sarah Williams says she was at a Halloween party last year when she snapped a picture of someone in black face. "It angers me and it’s unacceptable," Williams said in an interview with Colorlines.com on Monday. So she and some fellow students decided to do something about it–and they’ve captured national attention in the process.

"This is happening across the country. It’s not just here in Athens, Ohio," says Williams, who is the president of a student group at Ohio University called Students Teaching About Racism in Society (STARS). The group, made up of 10 students, has created an educational campaign called "We’re a Culture, Not a Costume" that juxtaposes images like the one Williams saw last year with an actual African-American student. It adds a simple statement: "This is not who I am, and this is not okay."  

The posters have already taken social media by storm, going viral on Tumblr and Facebook pages around the country. As of Monday evening, they had been shared more than 50,000 times online, according to Williams.

The posters will be passed out throughout the dorms on Ohio University’s Athens campus. The group’s Facebook page reports other schools, including Columbia University, are interested in distributing the campaign on their campuses, too.

STARS says their group’s guiding principle is based on the African principle "Each One Teach One". Their mission statement on their website reads: "The purpose of STARS is to educate and facilitate discussion about all ism’s (racism, sexism, classism, etc.),  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."

STARS produced the campaign entirely on its own, with no funding from the school. But the campaign has made such a positive impression on students and faculty that the Division of Student Affairs stepped in to help pay for posters to get printed.

Controversy surrounding racially offensive Halloween costumes and theme parties have become  a routine part of the holiday on college campuses. Last fall, one Northwestern University dean went so far as to send an advance email to the whole student body, urging them to think carefully before getting decked out. "Halloween is unfortunately a time when the normal thoughtfulness and sensitivity of most NU students can be forgotten and some poor decisions are made," wrote Burgwell Howard. In 2009, Northwestern had drawn unwanted national attention when party pics of two varsity athletes dressed in graphic black face made social media rounds.

Of course, the trend stretches past college campuses. The black-face costume of choice last year was Antoine Dodson, the young, poor black man who became a troubling Internet sensation after his outburst to a local news reporter covering his sister’s sexual assault. Memes circulated all year, in which producers morphed his screaming words into songs and audio clips. It was no surprise when, come Oct. 31, his Facebook page filled with pictures of white people in black face, wearing afro wigs and bandanas and making gang gestures.  

In 2009, Target made headlines by selling an "illegal alien" costume that featured an orange jumpsuit and an alien mask. Kohls previously sold a "Ghetto Fab Wig." Colorlines.com rounded up these and other perennially popular racist costumes last year. 

In short, costumes mocking people of color are an annual Halloween epidemic. Williams says STARS has a simple message for classmates planning to join the so-called fun again this year: "It’s not funny. STARS doesn’t believe that making a costume of a culture or race is funny. It only reinforces stereotypes."

Williams, who’s black, plans on being Janelle Monae on Halloween.