Once a year, on Halloween, people seize the opportunity to dress as something “they’re not.” Everywhere you turn, there seems to be a sudden increase in the number of enlarged animals and sexy nurses on the street, usually drunk, stumbling in the darkness. But without fail, you can pretty much bet on the fact that there will be a few individuals who cross the line into cultural offensiveness.
For the past few weeks, images from the “We’re a culture, not a costume” campaign, led by student organization Students Teaching About Racism in Society (STARS) at Ohio University, have been circulating across all social media platforms. The 10 students of STAR have dominated Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter with campaign posters featuring people of color holding up a picture of a culturally stereotypical costume claiming, “This is not who I am, and this is not okay.”

The message is simple. Garnering reblogs and retweets from supporters all across the country, STAR has managed to launch an online campaign aimed at protesting the repeated commodification of culture that’s usually hyper-exaggerated on Halloween.

As with most of these ad campaigns, while it has gained much support, mock ad posters have also emerged in response to STARS’s images, using their same template. One poster shows a young white man holding a picture of a leprechaun while another mock poster shows a young, scantily dressed woman holding a photo of a heavier set woman apparently pole dancing. Both images are stamped with the headline, “We’re a culture, not a costume. This is not who I am, and this is not okay.”

And what about the mock photo of this white man carrying the picture of an Asian man who has stolen his cowboy culture and reproduced it as costume? Where do we draw the line between what’s offensive and what’s not? Better yet, when should one be offended, no matter what color your skin is, if someone is dressed up as your culture?

While STARS’s objective is honorable and understandable, its campaign begs for retaliation with its tagline, “We’re a culture, not a costume.” Essentially, anything can be a culture: cowboy culture, dancer culture, school culture and the images seem to suggest that imitating any culture is wrong because it is offensive to transform a culture into a costume. If that’s the case, the cowboy should be offended that his culture has been made into a costume.

However, what STARS’s campaign does do is force individuals to think twice about their costumes, especially with widely circulating images stating that certain costumes are “not okay.” Truth of the matter is there is an entire racial history of oppression tied to many of the costumes representing people of color that is obviously not present in a leprechaun or cowboy costume. Because of that, perhaps Halloween should be approached with a bit of cultural sensitivity.