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October 27, 2021 - "Dear White People" and Halloween Harm

"Dear White People," written and directed by Justin Simien, was released back in 2014. The film is about the experiences of students of color at an Ivy League college. "Dear White People" was praised by critics and fared well in the box-office for a modestly released independent film, earning $4.4 million dollars against a $1.3 million budget. Rotten Tomatoes describes the film as a “welcome new voice to cinema’s oft-neglected discussion of race, tackling its timely themes with intelligence, honesty, and gratifyingly sharp wit.” The film would go on to spawn a Netflix series of the same name that has run for four seasons, with the final season released just over a month ago.

I can recall how tattered I felt after seeing the film in the theatre some seven years ago. The film focuses on the trauma and institutional fallout surrounding a college party in which students don costumes that appropriate and mock the culture of others. While the film is a satire, I am all too familiar with the real pain people feel when others use their culture as a costume. I can remember colleagues from the University of Florida (UF) reaching out to me in October of 2012, after photos of students in Blackface from an off-campus party were posted online. I had only recently transitioned from my role as the Director of the Institute of Black Culture at UF a few months earlier and the community was reeling following this incident. A couple of years before that, I was working in the University of California system when we learned of the Compton Cookout, an off-campus party that was designed to mock Black people and perpetuate degrading stereotypes.

As we head into the Halloween season, many institutions will offer admonitions about what people should or should not wear. While I find cautions against cultural appropriation, like this one produced by Teen Vogue, to be compelling, we know everyone does not agree with identity-based costume restrictions. I want to instead issue a plea more than a prohibition to Whitman. Wear what you want to wear AND please think about your Whitman community when you decide on your costume. You might want to consider the following:

  • Does it mock cultural or religious symbols (e.g. dreadlocks, headdresses, afros, bindis, etc.)?
  • Does it trivialize human suffering or oppression (portraying a houseless person, or depict someone living in a prison or jail)?
  • Does it lean in to stereotypes or attempt to represent an entire culture or ethnicity?

If it does any of these things, it may also contribute to community harm. 

Proximity does not necessarily equate to community. Common institutional affiliation does not automatically create community. To be in community with others is to care about their wellbeing and trust that they are concerned with yours. To be in community is to be invested in making the environment safe for each other. When putting together your costume, think about how it might harm another member of the Whitman community, your community. 

If you are unsure if your costume might be offensive, consider going in a different direction. You are also welcome to call one of the units listed below for guidance:

Intercultural Center: Laura Sanchez (509) 527-5177
Division of Diversity and Inclusion: John Johnson (509) 527-4996
Dean of Students: Kazi Joshua (509) 527-5158

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