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Student wins Halloween costume comp with blackface - so, when is dark humour just bad taste?

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Now the Halloween period has drawn to a close for another year, countless students will fondly be looking back on an evening spent being baffled by the ever-weird and wonderful characters drunkenly flocking to clubs in droves; dishevelled zombies alongside well-coiffed supermen and black cats huffing in queues accompanied by the Spice Girls.

For many, the awkward jumbling together of home-made costumes that quickly become limp reminders of your over-ambition is the chief delight of Halloween. However, this Halloween has been haunted by more than drunk witches in bad wigs - rather, an uncomfortable legacy of racism, as a student in blackface is awarded first prize in a ULU Halloween costume competition.

Following a weekend of pumpkins and political incorrectness, London students have been left reeling after a male student sporting plastic horns and black paint on his face won a costume competition organised by ULU.

The ULU Black Students Officer, Maham Hashmi-Khan, said that she was “incredulous” upon heading this news.  

“They wouldn’t have allowed someone in Nazi costume in. What kind of institution are we running?” she asked.

Although some students have denied that the winning student wore the offensive outfit with racist intent, it does beg the question of Halloween costume acceptability in a progressive union that claims to conform to a “safer spaces policy.”

Regrettably, Halloween has long been entangled in a controversial history of bad choice outfits that frequently surpass the fringes of acceptability. Take for example last year when Durham students caused controversy by wearing Jimmy Savile fancy dress in the wake of Yewtree allegations. 

An even worse example emerged this year of Travyon Martin costumes worn by white teenagers in the aftermath of one of the most controversial and traumatic court injustices in recent years. 

While some argue that bad taste humour is an essential ingredient of a good Halloween party, we have to ask ourselves whether it really is an attempt at satire, a bit of fun, or an excuse to exercise privilege? With regards to the hapless student’s poor attempt at humour at ULU, he could not have been unaware of the cultural implications of wearing blackface.

A simple Google search and a quick trawl through Wikipedia will tell you that wearing blackface is a way of stripping down black culture to offensive generalisations and caricature. Sadly, this is what some Halloween outfits do: they tear away nuance and reduce a culture to a costume.

An Ohio University recently initiated a campaign, Students Teaching About Racism in Society (STARS), to raise awareness of the racism inherent to wearing costumes that diminishes and disregards the stigma that groups in society still experience. Hard-hitting slogans include: “we’re a culture not a costume” and “you wear the costume for one night, I wear the stigma for life.” 

The University of Colorado Boulder has also taken steps to tell students to avoid holding parties with hillbilly, white trash, ghetto, or anything linked to sex work, in a move to wipe out crude stereotypes that privileged students are allowed to appropriate for a night. 

While such costumes are often poor attempts at bad-taste humour, we must remember that an ill-thought-out costume is a mistake that is so easy to avoid, so why do we keep on making it? Halloween costumes should be silly and inconsequential, not offensive and hurtful. In the case of the ULU student, rather than dismissing his outfit as an ill-thought-out prank, we should examine why he felt comfortable to make it and why the ULU celebrated his ignorance. Not even for a night a year should we be able to adopt a wilful blindness to the stigma that certain groups in society still face, and the history that it was born out of. 

Image by SpindlierHades on Flickr.

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