Warring Posters Debate Cultural Appropriation

by Rose Brennan & Joseph Liggio

Asst. Editors

On the morning of Tuesday, Oct. 31, Manhattan College students found a very interesting image posted in buildings around campus.

The image depicted a woman wearing a “sexy” cat costume, with an actual cat next to it with the words, “I’m a cat, not a costume. This is not who I am and this is not okay.”

The timing of the postings struck some as odd, as the Multicultural Center was set to host a discussion on cultural appropriation found in Halloween costumes the very same day.

While it is unknown whether or not the flyer was posted in regards to the discussion, Hayden Greene, the college’s director of multicultural affairs and leader of Tuesday’s conversation, did believe that the origins of the image was an important aspect of the conversation.

“I don’t know what was going through that person’s mind when they printed that out. It could be, ‘Oh, I saw this on Facebook or online and I want to be funny and poke fun at the multicultural center,’ or maybe they think that we’re being too sensitive and spoiling people’s fun,” said Greene.

This discussion was part of the multicultural center’s “Spook-tacular” event, which included a costume contest, face painting and trivia events along with the more serious discussion of culturally appropriative Halloween costumes.

“I get it, it’s not a conversation that everyone wants to have, it’s a conversation that rubs certain people the wrong way, but I think that there are real people who are really hurt by some of these costumes that are out there,” said Greene. “There are some times where people are just seriously oversensitive about what it is that they are doing, or oversensitive about the way people get offended by stuff, I get that. But there are some times that are spot on, […] and we have to give that credence.”

Student reactions to the images varied. Some students in the Kelly Student Commons laughed at them, while others tore the posters down.

The image itself parodies the widely-known “We’re a Culture, Not a Costume” poster campaign launched in 2011 by the Students Teaching About Racism in Society (STARS) organization of Ohio University.

According to the group’s website, STARS is intended to “facilitate discussion about diversity and all -isms (sexism, classism, heterosexism, ethnocentrism etc.) with an emphasis on racial issues.”

The initiative is intended to make people reconsider before donning a Halloween costume that may poke fun at or reinforce racial stereotypes. Their most well-known examples feature a student holding up an image of a costume intended to portray their respective ethnicity, typically in an over-exaggerated or offensive matter.

While the posters have grown increasingly popular since their debut, they have also been the subject of parody, the flyer posted around campus being one such example.

Like Greene’s initiative at the multicultural center, many other colleges across the country are taking action to address the issue of culturally appropriative costumes on their campuses.

According to an article published by Teen Vogue titled “Cultural Appropriation on Halloween: How Colleges are Responding”, the University of Utah distributed a newsletter which listed a number of attributes which might indicate a racially, ethnically or culturally insensitive costume.

The newsletter said, “Think to yourself: Does the actual name on the costume packaging say ‘tribal,’ or ‘traditional’? Does the costume include race-related hair or accessories (dreads/locs, afros, cornrows, a headdress)? Does the costume play into racial stereotypes? Does this costume represent a culture that is not my own? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you should rethink the costume and try again.”

Greene believes that there is a difference between cultural immersion, which reinforces a positive view and respect for a particular way of life, and blatant cultural appropriation in choosing a costume.

“There’s a real clear distinction from just seeing something on T.V. and saying ‘Oh, I’m gonna’ imitate that’ or ‘Oh, I‘m gonna’ mock that,’ and taking the time and making an effort to learn where that came from, what it means, what are the implications for doing it… I think that’s really important and that’s cultural appreciation,” said Greene.

It is evident that the fliers themselves were put up without approval for posting by MC’s Office of Student Engagement. Regardless of their intent, Director of Student Development John Bennett found no humor in them.

“These parody posters are not funny at all,” Bennett said in an email statement to the Quadrangle. “In fact, they can be pretty dangerous in having people make light of the original posters, and making our students feel uncomfortable or unwelcome on campus.”

The Office of Student Engagement has a specific policy regarding the distribution and posting of fliers, as Bennett explained.

“Our office specifically only approves and stamps flyers for our clubs, […] we fact check, making sure the date, time and locations are correct, and that the message is appropriate,” he said.

As of present, it seems that a review of procedure for postings on campus may be in the works.

“Just last month my office, and specifically Sharon Ortega, actually attempted to start a conversation with all the offices that work in the student commons to talk about the flyers and posting policy within the Commons. We felt it was an important conversation a month ago, and feel it’s an even more important conversation that needs to happen now.”