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Lancaster University Student’s Union recently led a campaign to prevent the wearing of offensive costumes during the Halloween period.
In 2011, a movement sparked in Ohio State University in response to a growing trend of what were considered racially offensive costumes. From Geisha costumes to Mexican donkey costumes, students of the university were upset with the continuing mockery of their cultures. The campaign organizer Sarah Williams said, in a 2011 CNN interview, that “during Halloween, we see offensive costumes. We don’t like it; we don’t appreciate it. We wanted to do a campaign about it saying, ‘Hey, think about this. It’s offensive,'”.
In the years since the campaign launch, it has spread across the United States, with campaigns at most major universities, and across the world through social media. In the months leading up to Halloween, social media sites including twitter and tumblr began to spread creative advertisements that encourage people to ‘wear a costume, not a culture’.
This year, similar advertisements have appeared across Lancaster’s campus. LUSU chose to formally get involved with the campaign this year, putting up flyers across campus as well as on their own social media sites. They included not only the original “My Culture is not a Costume” message, but also “My Mental Health is not a Costume” and “My Identity is not a Costume”, focusing on LGBTQ+ individuals, a new facet to the worldwide campaign.
LUSU VP (Welfare and Community) Anna Lee, who organized the campaign, said: “I thought it would be the best cause of action to educate people on the issue as these costume are a part of normalising oppression, dehumanisation and discrimination against certain groups.”
However, LUSU’s campaign has not been without issue. While championing a respectful and inclusive holiday, the organization planned a “Day of the Dead” themed event at Sugarhouse nightclub. As students began to call out the hypocrisy of LUSU’s campaign, they were met with a response from LUSU president, Will Hedley.
Hedley said that the event was “created as a sincere tribute to the celebrations that take place across the world; and there’s making a mockery of others by dressing up as a caricaturised version of an oppressed group in society, such as people with mental health conditions, members of different ethnic groups or trans people.”
Anna Lee said that when students approached her with concerns about the event, she brought them to the attention of the LUSU officers.
Lee told SCAN that she proposed the event be cancelled and replaced with a different event. However, she also noted that “the majority of the [LUSU Officer] team did not agree. I requested that if we do run the event we educate people about what the Día de Muertos actually was, I asked that we do everything we could to ensure that everyone going to the event would be taught about what it was before going; the team agreed to that.”
The education on the event that Lee pushed for came in the form of a series of tweets in the hours leading up to the event. Using the #DayOfTheDead hashtag, the LUSU twitter account sent a total of 10 tweets about Dia de Muertos, including one saying that “Day of the Dead features in the opening scene of the new James Bond movie Spectre”.
Students have been involved in the debate, originally calling out LUSU on both the Sugarhouse event, and the campaign as a whole. Many people, at Lancaster and abroad, feel Halloween is a holiday for fun and that a costume is just a costume.
Others agree with the campaign, that playing of racial or other stereotypes reinforces negative ideas and can create a toxic environment for some students. Lee said “when raising these concerns I was echoing what many students had said to me and I made it clear that it was not just one person’s view.”
While LUSU claims to have celebrated Dia de Muertos, the differences between the party at Sugarhouse and the traditional holiday are obvious to those who know and understand the cultural, religious, and family traditions of Dia de Muertos.
Traditionally a Mexican holiday, Dia de Muertos is celebrated November 1-2, and focuses of celebrating the lives of deceased family members. Months of preparation go into the elaborate altars and decorations that are often placed on graves, or in homes. Many cities hold large events, featuring parades. However, unlike Halloween, Dia de Muertos is a family oriented holiday. The skull face painting which has become a trend for Western celebrations, is a representation of Katrina (Lady Death) and has significant cultural relevancy.
Student Shonneysha Sallis explained “Dia de los Muertos is not the same thing as Halloween and they’re basically exploiting and appropriating sacred Aztec rituals without fully understanding its origins.”
Lee summed up the issue she, and other students had with the way the holiday was handled. She said: “I have an issue with the event being run the way it was run. If Mexican students had run it themselves to truly celebrate the festival that that would be fine; I’d be queuing up to experience the event myself, but that’s not what is happening here. My thoughts are purely with those who are offended by LUSUs actions and I feel terrible that the complaints were not addressed and all I can do is apologise.”