BEHIND THE HEADLINES: Socially Responsible? Yes, Even on Halloween

October 29, 2015
Aubrey Loftus, a freshman from Saline, Mich., knows exactly where Waldo is. Photo by Brandi Skanes

Aubrey Loftus, a freshman from Saline, Mich., knows exactly where Waldo is. Photo by Brandi Skanes

It isn’t breaking news that Michigan State Spartans know how to celebrate Halloween, and this year will be no exception. This weekend, students from all corners of campus will put the final touches on their costumes and parade from one party to the next, praying that the Michigan weather will be kind. 

There will be at least one couple with a coordinated costume at every gathering, and you will not be able to count on one hand the number of Waldos you find.

These traditions of festivity are great; they help to make Michigan State one of the most closely connected communities in the world. However, there are some things about college Halloween celebrations that aren’t great. For example, how easy it is to offend populations of people through costumes that demonstrate cultural insensitivity.

Another term for this is “cultural appropriation,” a sociological concept that refers to using elements of a culture by members of a different culture. This is considered to be a largely negative phenomenon and can be greatly offensive—even traumatic—to many groups. The outlandish, exaggerated depiction of certain sports mascots based on Native American stereotypes is but one example of cultural appropriation that can be hurtful to entire populations.

You may ask how this relates to the upcoming Halloween festivities, and it’s simple: To wear a sombrero and glue on a fake mustache, to paint tribal markings on your face, or to wear a costume pairing a hijab with weapons, is to adopt elements of another culture on a night centered around dramatization and making fun. This action could be found offensive to individuals who consider those cultural traditions to be a sacred part of their identity. Many students may not realize this, but this is cultural appropriation. You can take the costume off on November 1, but members of minority cultures will wear the stigma forever.

In 2011, Ohio University launched the first “We’re a culture, not a costume” campaign to raise awareness about cultural appropriation on Halloween. The campaign has since spread across campuses in the United States, reminding students everywhere that the costumes they wear may imply more than they realize.

This problem should hit especially close to home at Michigan State. According to recent statistics from MSU’s Office of Inclusion, our Spartan family is composed of about 50,000 students that come from more than 130 countries. Additionally, nearly 21 percent of our undergraduate students identify as a minority culture.

Why is sensitivity to these issues important? Because Spartans stand together. One of the things that makes Michigan State so great is the effort we make to unite and cultivate a community of acceptance and respect in the midst of diversity. MSU promotes this effort in part through Mosaic and its Multicultural Unity Center. Mosaic, part of the Office of Cultural and Academic Transition (OCAT), provides a meeting space for registered student organizations, Intercultural Aids (ICAs), and other groups, with an aim of educating students on cultural issues by giving room for the conversation.

“I think an important question is: What is the intention of why people dress up for Halloween? Who are you representing and how are you representing them?” said Maggie Chen Hernandez, the coordinator of Mosaic. “It’s important to think about these things.”

Mosaic, which is located on the third floor of the MSU Union, is currently displaying an exhibit titled “Voices Rising” that brings to light many of the same questions surrounding cultural appropriation in Halloween costumes by way of images, infographs, and quotes related to current events.

In doubt about whether a costume is appropriate or offensive? Chen-Hernandez pointed out that ICAs live in residential halls on campus to assist in cultural transitions and are a great resource for students to engage in discussions about costumes they’re considering that may be offensive. In addition to this, all students are welcome to attend weekly round table discussions about culture at the campus Neighborhood Engagement Centers that ICAs facilitate.

Marley Marano (left), a sophomore from Clarendon Hills, Ill., and Sydney Santoviz, a junior from Frankenmuth, Mich., are set for a Halloween safari. They are safari guides. Photo by Brandi Skanes

Marley Marano (left), a sophomore from Clarendon Hills, Ill., and Sydney Santoviz, a junior from Frankenmuth, Mich., are set for a Halloween safari. They are safari guides. Photo by Brandi Skanes

As members of Spartan nation, we have a responsibility not only to our campus community, but to the community far beyond East Lansing. It’s important that we hold ourselves to the standard of respectful and thoughtful citizens. 

Before we head out to celebrate together this Halloween, let’s consider how we can choose costumes that represent MSU as the safe, aware, and inclusive institution we strive to be.

Theresa Leo is a senior English major in the College of Arts and Letters who is interning as a writer in the Student Affairs and Services Communications Office. The opinions expressed in Behind the Headlines do not necessarily represent those of the Division of Student Affairs or Michigan State University.

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