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November 13, 2015

Apology sparks discussion on role of admin in Halloween costumes

Last year, fourth-year Vincente Perez brought the subject of cultural appropriation in Halloween costumes to the forefront of campus debate, when he wrote a column for The Maroon that described an incident on a UChicago shuttle bus, when he encountered a student dressed as a “cholo”—a stereotypical Mexican gangster. This year, first-year Parker Groves wore a similar costume at a University-sponsored event, for which he later publicly apologized. In the aftermath, both Groves and Perez questioned what University protocol should be with respect to Halloween costumes.

Recently, national media attention has focused on whether college administrators should advise students against wearing Halloween costumes that some find to be culturally appropriative, as well as how students and administrators should respond to such incidents when they occur. In a high-profile incident at Yale University, students called for the firing of Erika Christakis, a Yale lecturer and housing officer that sent an e-mail to her residents in which she argued that administrators ought not tell students what to wear.

On October 30, the Council on University Programming (COUP) held “Boos n’ Ribs,” a Halloween-themed version of its annual live music and food festival, in Ida Noyes Hall. The event also featured a costume contest. Groves, who said that a friend asked him if he wanted to go to Boos n’ Ribs right before it started, hastily chose to wear a bandanna and a plaid shirt, with only the top button buttoned.

He said that the design was inspired by Stand and Deliver, a 1988 drama film about Hispanic high school students in Los Angeles who overcome disadvantaged backgrounds to learn advanced mathematics. Groves, who identifies as White, added that he did not know that the costume would offend; prior to coming to college, he had worked at a Taco Bell near his hometown in Colorado, where he said that the “cholo” stereotype was a common joke in a work environment where many of his co-workers were Hispanic.

“About talking about ‘cholos’ and gang life, it was always kind of a joke with them, between me and them. So I wasn’t aware of the offensive nature that could have. In retrospect, I should have known better. But at the time, I was only acting on what I knew, which was that a number of individuals joked around about stuff like that,” Groves said.

Groves went to Boos n’ Ribs with his friend and fellow first-year, Danie Daniels. They were photographed together at the costume contest, and Groves titled the entry “West Side Pride.” Both Groves and Daniels said that neither the COUP staff nor the other students present took issue with Groves’ costume at the time.

At 5:21 p.m., COUP uploaded that photo, along with photos of other entrants into the costume contest, to the Boos n’ Ribs Facebook page, where viewers could vote for the costumes that they liked best. That night, Perez said that he saw the picture online, but hesitated before commenting on it.

“I saw the pictures when they were posted. At the time, I dropped the issue, because I didn’t want to be personally attacked. But other people messaged me and said ‘I can’t deal with this,’ and another friend of mine started sharing the photo, so I eventually commented,” Perez said.

COUP has since removed the photo from the Boos n’ Ribs page. Perez said this was a misstep in addressing the issue, which was that he considered the photo to be an affront to his identity.

“It’s not just that it’s offensive to me; that’s what people don’t get. I’m hurt because that’s part of my ethnic identity. It erases the prevalence of police brutality and the labeling of Latinos as criminal,” Perez said.

Daniels, who identifies as Black, said in an e-mail that there was a disconnect between how she and Groves thought their costumes were perceived at the event, and the response to the photos on Facebook.

“What had us enter the contest in the first place were recommendations from people affiliated with the event. That was why being greeted the next morning with housemates talking about how things ‘blew up’ was very confusing and disheartening...we had faced threats and many rude remarks stating that Parker is an ‘unapologetic racist,’ and it definitely took a toll on him when it happened,” Daniels said.

On the afternoon of the 31st, COUP posted a strongly worded statement condemning Groves’ costume on both its main Facebook page and its Boos n’ Ribs event page.

“In a deluge of photos that were automatically uploaded to our costume contest album, there was a representation of an incredibly stylized and defamatory stereotype. We accept responsibility for the posting of this picture and apologize for propagating the image. It was not, and is not, and will never be our intention to promote such messages of intolerance,” the statement read in part.

Underneath the COUP post, both Groves and Daniels publicly apologized for the incident. Perez said he was dissatisfied that the apology only appeared on the Boos n’ Ribs page, as opposed to the COUP general page, which he said was an attempt “to minimize the number of people who knew about the incident.”

Meanwhile, Groves said that COUP told him not to contact any of the students who commented on the photo, and that the University got involved when COUP called his Resident Head (RH) and Resident Assistant (RA) in student Housing. Groves then met with the RH’s to discuss the incident.

“I think that [the RHs] played a pretty unbiased role, and made sure that I was OK. It was very non-judgmental, they weren’t blaming me at all, but explained how that was offensive to some of the other students,” Groves said. COUP Chair Emma Almon confirmed that the organization contacted “the housing staff of the costume wearers,” but could not be reached for comment on whether COUP told Groves not to contact the other students.

University spokesperson Marielle Sainvilus confirmed that “Campus and Student Life was made aware of concerns regarding a particular Halloween costume worn at a COUP-sponsored event on October 30,” but did not comment on Housing’s involvement. 

Both Groves and Perez said that they would support increased University involvement in identifying culturally appropriative costumes in advance of next Halloween. Groves said that he would support a message or e-mail from the University with examples of unacceptable costumes in order to inform the student body; Perez said that he wants the administration to actively condemn instances in which students wear unacceptable costumes.

“It’s a tricky issue, but the University has to take a more staunch stance against appropriative costumes. It has happened every year since I’ve been here. President Zimmer talks about the balance between free speech and civil behavior...but when the University says nothing, it makes activists look like the only people who take issue with the costumes.”

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