‘Undergrad Update’ advises respect

Students should avoid culturally stereotypical Halloween costumes.

Sam Jasenosky

The University of Minnesota’s Office of Student Affairs sent out its “Undergrad Update” email to students Monday.

Under the “Nice to Know” section, the first topic in Monday’s email was “Celebrate Halloween Respectfully.” It encouraged students to be respectful when choosing Halloween costumes and to avoid perpetuating racial, cultural and gender stereotypes.

A link in the update goes to a letter emailed to all students earlier this month that expands on the careful costume suggestion in the update.

In the letter, Vice Provost and dean of students Danita Brown Young and Vice President of Equity and Diversity Katrice Albert inform students that certain costumes “can depict identities in ways that are offensive or hurtful to others.” The Minnesota Daily printed a similar letter by Brown and Albert on Wednesday.

Brown told the Star Tribune that she hopes the letter causes students to reflect more carefully on their decisions, even if the letter sparks complaints about political correctness.

Reading through the comments on the Star Tribune’s article confirms controversy around the letter. Many commenters argue the University, as a public institution with an obligation to uphold the Constitution, shouldn’t have sent the letter because it violates First Amendment rights to expression.

As a student who received the update, I was impressed by the progressive message behind the letter. I interpreted the letter as a way to raise awareness of cultural appropriation.

Susan Scafidi, a Fordham University law professor and author of the book “Who Owns Culture?: Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law,” describes cultural appropriation as “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission.”

The line between cultural appreciation and appropriation is often blurred. The distinct difference between the two, however, is that appreciation comes from a genuine interest in customs and traditions from a specific culture, whereas appropriation takes advantage of the stereotypes pertaining to that specific culture, often without facing any of the hardships that group has endured.

Cultural appropriation marginalizes the struggle minority groups face while exploiting the stereotypes that foster that same struggle.

In September, a 21-year-old white Australian woman threw an “African-themed” birthday party. Pictures from the party displaying people dressed as gorillas and KKK members and adorning blackface were posted to Facebook, and they eventually went viral on BuzzFeed.

The problem with costumes like these is that they perpetuate stereotypes, often negatively, without the appropriator ever having to deal with the consequences of those negative stereotypes.

The white people who painted their faces black, and thus perpetuated the blackface caricature, were able to wash the paint off when they grew tired of it. For the people that blackface stereotypes, washing away paint isn’t an option.

I believe the University has an obligation to make all students feel safe.

If that obligation requires advising students to become more aware of how their actions can negatively affect others, then it’s necessary.