Universities and student groups are issuing recommendations about appropriate costumes, which tread a line between flattery and mockery that is not always obvious.
Pocahontas, Caitlyn Jenner and Pancho Villa are no-nos. Also off-limits are geisha girls and samurai warriors — even, some say, if the wearer is Japanese. Among acceptable options, innocuous ones lead the pack: a Crayola crayon, a cup of Starbucks coffee or the striped-cap-wearing protagonist of the “Where’s Waldo?” books.
As colleges debate the lines between cultural sensitivity and free speech, they are issuing recommendations for Halloween costumes on campus, aimed at fending off even a hint of offense in students’ choice of attire. Using the fairly new yardstick of cultural appropriation — which means pretending for fun or profit to be a member of an ethnic, racial or gender group to which you do not belong — schools, student groups and fraternity associations are sending a message that can be summed up in five words: It is dangerous to pretend.
“If there’s a gray line, it’s always best to stay away from it,” said Mitchell Chen, 21, a microbiology major and director of diversity efforts at the Associated Students of the University of Washington. The student government group emailed to all students this week a 6-minute video of what not to do for Halloween.
There has already been one major cultural collision this week that fanned the flames: The University of Louisville in Louisville, Ky., apologized Thursday to the school’s Latinos after its president, James Ramsey, was photographed wearing stereotypical Mexican attire at a Halloween party for staff members Wednesday. In a picture posted online, Ramsey wore a sombrero and fringed poncho and stood next to university workers dressed as members of a mariachi band, with sombreros, maracas and fake mustaches.
The term “cultural appropriation,” which emerged from academia but has been applied more broadly — say, to refer to Washington Redskins fans wearing feather headdresses, white people in cornrows or Miley Cyrus twerking — has drawn ire from opponents of political correctness. But supporters say it captures a truth: The melding of cultures is often about which group has the power to take symbols, styles or language from another.
The student-produced UW video shows students from various ethnic groups and of various sexual orientations saying that almost any portrayal of them can cause a wound: For example, dressing in drag can belittle the struggles of gay and transgender people.
“It’s all over social media — people posting things like ‘How not to be offensive this Halloween,’ ” said Long Le, 22, an industrial-design major. He will be working at McDonald’s on Halloween, so he will be dressing, he said, as a McDonald’s worker.
Le’s friend Charles Ekeya, 22, an international-studies major, said he found some of the new costume warnings to be snicker-inducing — though he said he understood that parodies taken too far could hurt.
“There’s been a lot of joking about it: ‘Oh, I can’t be an Indian this year because it’s inappropriate,’ ” said Ekeya, who plans to dress as Spider-Man. “It’s becoming a bigger deal than it should be. Everybody is like, ‘Oh, we should be careful.’ ”
At Duke University, the Center for Multicultural Affairs has filled its Facebook page with images of young people holding up pictures of offensive stereotypes, including white people in blackface and a man dressed as a suicide bomber, with the hashtag #OurCulturesAreNotCostumes.
And at the University of Michigan, the dean of students has a Web page, “Cultural Appropriation — what is the big deal?” It urges students to ask themselves why they are wearing a particular costume, and then to consider how accurate it is in depicting a culture or identity.
“Still unsure? Don’t be afraid to ask someone!” the page urges. Accompanying photographs show students in acceptable costumes, including one dressed as Rosie the Riveter and others as a deck of playing cards.
Students at various schools said in interviews that they viewed racial tension as the driving force behind many of the warnings, especially in the past few weeks, since stories about a fraternity costume party gone wrong at UCLA raised blood-pressure levels at many schools. Some white students at the party dressed as Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, with smudged faces and exaggerated, padded body parts.
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Fraternities, in particular, have been warned. The North-American Interfraternity Conference said in a message to members last week that they should take “necessary steps to ensure that member organizations make responsible decisions regarding event themes, costumes and social media.” It added: “Our goal is for fraternities to avoid promoting concepts that reinforce historical stereotypes and mock or offend various cultures, races, ethnicities or identities.”
Will Foran, a spokesman for the group, which represents fraternities with 370,000 undergraduate members, said the holiday could still be fun. “This is not political correctness run amok, but an opportunity to put our best foot forward,” he said.
Halloween costumes that offend somebody, somewhere — whether they reference the gore of zombie culture or the sexism of a Playboy Bunny — have been a college tradition since long before the first fake rubber severed hand.
The judgment call that students are being asked to make, social experts said, is how far to go in pretending to be someone else, and whether the effect is flattery or mockery. The difference is not always obvious.
“If you are inspired by something that originates from another culture and you want to incorporate it into your wardrobe or beauty-makeup routine, then it is fine because it comes from an honest place of admiration,” Laia Garcia, the associate editor at Lenny, an online newsletter, wrote in an email.
But Halloween, Garcia said, is now often about ridicule. “Dressing up as Pocahontas (or Sexy Pocahontas, let’s get real), is offensive because it takes the whitewashed version of a whole group of people that have been victimized and abused in their own land” and presents it as “a thing one can just try for a night,” she wrote.
Some schools advise that borrowing from any culture is demeaning and insulting unless the wearer is a part of that culture. In other words, do not put on a karate outfit with a black belt, UW student government leaders advised in the video, unless you earned that belt.
The nature of risk itself, some media critics said, is what students are really debating.
“It’s always possible that someone will be offended by this or that costume or statement or position, but you can’t base your behavior on that chance,” said Mark Crispin Miller, a professor of media studies at New York University. “There has to be some room for stepping over certain boundaries.”
For all the worry about students’ seeking out the edge of shock or controversy on Halloween, a more innocent kind of hero worship is also alive and well.
Serena LaBounty, 20, a UW biology major, said she planned to wear sweats and tell people at her Halloween party that she was Misty May-Treanor, the Olympic gold-medal-winning beach-volleyball champion. Ekeya, the international-studies major, said he was going as his hero as well.
“Got to be something cool,” he said. “That’s Spidey.”