As we take down our Halloween decorations and pack away our costumes, consider what this holiday leaves behind. The stinging repercussions of costumes likely comes to mind. Whether it’s the appropriation of historically oppressed cultures, or the fetishization of a racial demographic, costumes can be dangerous.
It’s not my place to discuss the issue of appropriation itself. In light of recent motions on campus, appropriation seems to be an issue for which the Bates community exhibits a genuine care. With the new poster campaign, We’re a Culture Not a Costume, the problem of appropriation is visibly present on campus as well. In a Bates Today released in the week before Halloween, a faculty member delineates the issues with appropriation– as well as a suggested list of responses. Through several movements on campus, the vital dialogue of appropriation has already been opened.
Instead, I want to initiate a different type of discussion altogether. I’d like to explore what these costume controversies mean on an institutional level– that is, for Bates as a liberal arts college. A concerted effort has been made to combat appropriation with the aforementioned poster campaign and email alike. The content of these messages is essential to understanding the hegemonic society of which we are a part and in spreading awareness of the toxic ramifications of appropriation. But where are these messages coming from?
The driving force behind this campaign seems largely staff-centric. As to the poster campaign, the email cites the Office of Intercultural Education, Office of Residence Life and Health Education, the JARC staff, and the professor as the central contributors. And of course, the email itself comes directly from a professor. For an issue prescribing the behavior of students, the message seems to be coming heavily from the administration.
Many will recall the Yale Halloween controversy, in which faculty member Erika Christakis sent out an email reacting to a statement from the University urging students to rethink their Halloween costumes. Her email was certainly not devoid of flaws, and I won’t argue in defense of the piece as a whole. After all, Christakis has received widespread criticism from Yale faculty and students regarding the semantics of her email. But buried beneath the controversy, Christakis raises important questions.
At its core, the email explores the role of the administration in controlling student speech, illuminating the “consequences of an institutional exercise of implied control over college students.” The purpose of an educational institution is to allow for the intellectual growth of its students. So we’re left with a complex question– what role should the administration play in facilitating that growth?
With the one-year anniversary of the Yale controversy in our wake, the questions it raises have never been more relevant. And with Bates faculty spearheading initiatives against appropriation, this issue certainly pertains to our community.
If one thing is for certain, this problem is not limited to Bates. This Halloween, the administrations of several institutions cracked down on appropriation, including several NESCAC schools. Wesleyan University recently disseminated a “checklist” around dorms to thwart appropriation and general offensiveness in costumes. Tufts’ Dean of Student Affairs delineated specific repercussions for wearing disrespectful costumes on campus. As these controversies continue to crop up, a pattern among liberal arts colleges begins to emerge.
Several of Bates’ fellow NESCAC schools have set a precedent of how we should approach student speech. It’s now in the hands of the Bates community to decide if we want to follow suit. Christakis questions what administrative censure says about “our view of young adults, of their strength and judgment”. If Bates is a community that instills an intellectual trust in its students, we should allow for student organizations to lead these efforts against appropriation. We are a community of fiercely intellectual students– shouldn’t we deserve the ability to learn from each other?
In the end, we’re left with many more questions than answers. But I think that’s the purpose of any forum– to foster dialogue. Without question, raising awareness of appropriation is imperative. Perhaps, we just need to rethink who should be doing it.