Top College News Subscribe to the Newsletter

Hypersensitive Halloween

Published: Sunday, October 28, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 18:01

With one weekend down and one weekend to go, we currently stand in the middle of the Hallo-Weekends. Each night in preparation for the wild events to follow, there comes a time for decision: what to wear? Now, before you read any further, I ask those who are easily offended to put this paper down (or maybe flip to the Sports section) because I am going to be offensive. 

Last week, in a blast email sent from the Women’s Resource Center, UGBC challenged the students of Boston College to “Dress With Respect.” Attached was a link to a Facebook page, which gave a Twitter handle and a link to the campaign “Take Back Halloween.” At first, I deleted the email—physically and mentally—and continued to plan my Catwoman costume. I figured it was just another feminist rant about how girls shouldn’t objectify themselves every Oct. 31. And honestly, I wasn’t going to listen. I am 19 and in college. Give me a break!
While I had put the email out of my mind, it was clear people around campus hadn’t. I kept hearing bits of conversations: there were snippets of support, hints of hesitation, and shreds of sarcasm. My curiosity got the best of me and before I knew it, I was on the “Take Back Halloween” website and emailing UGBC. Before I made any conclusion, I had to do my research.
The campaign calls for students to consider refraining from dressing in offensive costumes. Essentially, this means dressing as races or cultures. I understand why UGBC has this campaign. I see its objective to create a conversation about what is and what is not offensive, but let me be clear: it’s overdramatic
I am a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant: a WASP. I played squash and rowed crew at my private boarding school, and was born and raised in a small New England town that still celebrates the victory of the French and Indian war. I am proud of the WASP culture that embraces the American Dream and celebrates education and success (not all WASPs are rich a—holes). Now if someone were to dress as a prep, a filthy-rich old man, or any other distortion of my ancestry, do I have a right to be mad? Do I get a poster? My first instinct is “hell no, that’s ridiculous.” But if WASPs don’t get sensitivity toward their culture, why are we demanding other cultures do? Where do we draw the line? I understand there are lines that should not be crossed, but really—is a simple sombrero all that bad? Our society calls for sensitivity, but only certain amounts and to certain groups of people. 
Now, this is not a call for equality in sensitivity. I do not think that the WASP culture needs a poster, and I will not be offended if I see over-the-top preps this weekend. What we need is a decrease in sensitivity, or at least a raised awareness about the possibility of becoming hypersensitive. 
All right, I am about to get a little philosophical on you … I can’t help it, we go to BC. Montaigne (that French guy who wrote the collection of essays that, when compiled, weighs more than a brick), wrote a famous essay on the problems of customs. He says it is the customs of our society that “ensnare us” and hold us hostage. The limitations of customs in our society leave us unable to think or reevaluate for ourselves if what we believe is the capital-T Truth is indeed the capital-T Truth. 
It is the custom of the United States, and often of BC, to be sensitive and politically correct in all situations. No one wants to risk saying something offensive. Looking back on the 2008 presidential campaigns, the majority of issues were based on race. Real issues were brushed over, or not even mentioned, because the U.S. and its population were incredibly hypersensitive. No one wanted to offend President Obama or his policies, for those who did were often called racists. Now certainly there were racists, but the fear of offending Obama led to a fear of asking the important questions. Obama is a tough cookie—he can take it! 
I don’t want BC to surrender to a hypersensitive custom, though by the looks of it we may already have. It is once students become too afraid of offending people that they become afraid of asking the important questions. Our Jesuit nature begins to deteriorate if we don’t ask our neighbors why they believe what they believe, or act as they do. We can’t discover our own capital-T Truths if we are too afraid of offending someone in the process. 
For anyone whom this column angers: good. That means you’re thinking. You will say I don’t know the hardships of your people or the significance behind this campaign, but before you get your troops ready to roll into battle, I bet you think you know my story. You’re assuming I am a rich WASP who hasn’t seen the struggles of making it in America, and thus can’t possibly understand the importance of this campaign. Now you are the one stereotyping.
I want my argument and challenge to BC to be clear. I am not saying that UGBC shouldn’t be conducting this campaign, but I am asking that we reevaluate it, break free of any customs, and ensure it is being conducted in a way that is not fostering hypersensitivity.
There is something very special about the culture of BC, and it revolves around our courage to ask the hard questions and search for the capital-T Truth. I ask BC to be aware of the hypersensitive customs of America and be careful not to fall down the slippery slope.
Editor's Note: The views expressed in this column are the author's alone. 

Recommended: Articles that may interest you


Tue Nov 6 2012 16:22
A response by a BC student. Very interesting.

Mon Nov 5 2012 23:48
Dear white person. On grounds that you attended a private boarding school, you rowed crew, and played squash, two sports that cost upwards of 15,000 dollars a year, you do not know the hardship that middle-class Americans, and first generation immigrants face. As a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant, who is obviously proud of her upper class standing, you are allowed to be happy with your status in life. However, don't presume to tell me that you are on the same level as me, that your people have endured as much suffering as mine. Should you be proud of your people, then be proud that there were once slaves where you lived. That the land you took was taken from Native Americans, usually by force. White people in this country have been the privileged race going back to the inception of this country. There is a difference in dressing up as Hitler, or dressing up as a nerd. There is a difference in dressing as a terrorist, and dressing up as a filthy rich old white man.

The difference is this: Hitler caused real suffering to people. A terrorist caused real suffering to people. What suffering did the hypothetical nerd endure? What suffering has the filthy rich old man endured that is paramount to the suffering a terrorist, or a master of genocide caused? If you are offended by people dressing as WASPs, that is your prerogative. You may begin a campaign to stop people dressing as such. You cannot sit there, on your high horse, celebrate the winning of the French and Indian war, a war which the USA had no right to even participate in, as it was anyways Native American land, and tell us that you are offended by people dressing as WASPs. Shame on you.

Reuben Kaller, SA, TX
Wed Oct 31 2012 19:49
While this was an opinion piece, I hope the author takes the time to read the Facebook comments and try to understand the motivation behind them. It's easy to see anger and want to shut it all out through ideas like, "but I'm not a racist," or "people on the internet are morons anyway (see: YouTube comments)," but she sparked something genuine about which it does not appear she has taken the time to deeply consider.
Best of luck to you!
Wed Oct 31 2012 19:04
I think that although you make a persuasive argument, you left out the fact that Americans hold little to nothing as sacred, which is best reflected in the drunk sorority girl who has to pray for forgiveness in her sins that she commits every alcohol driven weekend. America is founded on making money off of the exploitation of cultures worldwide and despite your argument that racism goes both ways, the accumulation of White racism on other races has been the most damaging of all. That is why it is not acceptable and I'm sorry that you have little to no choice in changing that label on Whites.
Mom in a multiracial family
Wed Oct 31 2012 12:55
My dear Ms Barnes,

I went to grad school in New England almost 30 years ago, and among my classmates, there was a pretty distinct "type" who had gone to Boston College undergrad: white, wealthy, conservative and completely clueless about the wider world. Unfortunately, this piece makes me think that nothing has changed in your charming little college pond. You are clearly ensnared by the custom of White privilege.

Wed Oct 31 2012 12:20
The major flaw in this argument is the quest for "capital T Truth" - there is no such thing as this; "Truth" is subjective and it's pointless trying to suggest that a "True" answer to the situation you present exists. Moreover, what you see as "hyper-sensitive" may not be perceived as such by an individual, you are assuming that they will share your understanding of the thin line between "acceptable" and down-right racist. I'm sure you would say that you respect other cultures and do not mind your own WASP culture being ridiculed and therefore why can't you ridicule others, but that is easy to say in your secure societal position that is not a victim of everyday racism.

LS, Sheffield, UK,

Tue Oct 30 2012 13:00
While "I'm 19 and in college. Give me a break!" was perhaps an unsuccessful attempt at humor, I find your hypocrisy astounding. For all the reasons so eloquently stated in the comments section of this article, it is the marginalized who should define the circumstances that make them feel that way. It is up to those who are in the majority, however, to be sensitive to this information and use it to correct the potentially threatening and divisive behavior. As I stated before, the "gimme a break, I'm in college, etc." makes me wonder if your goal here really is to start an open dialogue. I would rather dig for some capital-T Truths on that issue. The fact that you take the practice of objectifying yourself for granted in the college setting is a more appropriate topic for you to explore, since it seems to be something that you actually have personal experience with.
Mon Oct 29 2012 18:13
Dear Kristy,

While there are certain elements of your commentary that I agree with, I think on the whole your commentary does come from a privileged background. You make the assertion that the reader imagining you as a wealthy WASP is stereotyping you. That is a valid point. Where I think it is fair to stereotype your viewpoint, however, is that you are white. Based on the campaign sites, which I just looked at, you really cannot overlook that fact. Why? Because you (and myself as well) are the race with the power, historically speaking. White people have racial privileges that members of other races do not have: as a white man, I don't feel that women think I'm going to attack them if we're on a dark street; when I walk into a store, it is not assumed that I am poor, rather, my socioeconomic class isn't a major factor. For people of color, however, it often is. So no, you and I would not be offended by somebody going ultra prep for Halloween. But you must also consider that the culture of white people surrounds us and is generally dominant in American culture. Whether or not it is ok to make fun of a subset of white culture is your call. As far as stereotypical representations of minorities go, however, it is a different story. Their culture and their stories are far less represented in mainstream American culture, so when you stereotype the culture, it feels degrading, because this less known and less common culture is being reduced to an often incorrect aspect of it. The stereotyping is done often without the effort by the person to get to know the culture and customs of another race. So the issue is, it can be offensive, and it also shows a person's unwillingness (or perhaps apathy) towards learning about the real background, and real essence, of another person.

I agree that tip toe-ing around issues doesn't solve anything, and I respect you for bringing up that point. It doesn't help us to have conversations that are necessary and to learn about things we do not know. But a campaign like this that is raising awareness about the issues of stereotyping, to me, does more good than bad, especially at a school like Boston College, where white culture is so pervasive. We should all take more steps to learn about another culture and not just reduce it to a costume and one or two customs we read about in a children's book long ago. I found your argument against this campaign disconnected from what you were trying to say. Yes, we need to ask questions without fear and seek to learn what we do not know. But your attack of this campaign says something very different--it essentially (and it seems you did not intend to do this, but this is the nature of attacking a campaign such as this) demeans and belittles cultural sensitivity. Cultural sensitivity is not a bad thing. It is a call for all of us to understand another culture better and not just make assumptions about something we don't know. We all know what happens when you assume...As you mature, I hope you continue to ask questions and not just make assumptions.

Also, I would highly recommend you (and the BC student body in general) read Tim Wise's "White Like Me". It's a life changer.

Kind Regards,

Matt Gelman
A&S 2010

Caitlin Keefe
Mon Oct 29 2012 17:46
I am absolutely mortified to read this as an alumna. There is no excuse for this kind of ignorance in 2012. You can choose to flaunt your racial insensitivity, Kristy, but please don't denigrate the efforts of UGBC to build a more tolerant campus.
Mon Oct 29 2012 17:29
Really? I hope you take advantage of opportunities to develop a more multicultural perspective while you're at BC (important before you graduate and go out into the "real world.") Take a class like Social Construction of Whiteness and I promise you will think differently.
Mon Oct 29 2012 16:24
First off, kudos for having the balls to post something like this. But then again, not really, because chances are; most of the BC population will agree with you because most of them share your ethnicity, socio-economic status and ignorant views. Unless you have faced the issues minorities have and continuously face, you have no right to to describe our support for the campaign as "hypersensitivity."

If you are okay with people dressing as preppy, stuck-up wasps, that is your call. That does not mean anyone else should have to be okay with someone poking fun at their ethnicity. That's how slavery began in the first place; some individuals thought they had the right to make decisions for a greater population.You talk about asking the right questions, why don't you begin with with asking a Mexican why they wouldn't want you wearing a sombrero for Halloween. I can guarantee you their response won't be as "simple" as you predicted.

The point of the campaign is to raise awareness; the collective student body at Boston College consists of people from a variety of backgrounds. As a result, things that are sensitive to someone, may be incomprehensible to another. You wouldn't crack a "yo mamma" joke if you knew someone lost their mother, whether the event occurred yesterday or 20 years ago. Some things will always be sensitive topics.

Mon Oct 29 2012 15:11
Ms. Barnes, it is not a "custom" of the US to be sensitive. I have no idea where you get this idea, but "political correctness" only really rose in the 70s. The word "nigger," "chink," "redman" was thrown around liberally until then. The UGBC campaign is not about being hypsersensitive; it's about not arousing the connotations and the historical pains that comes with certain costumes. Do you think we're being too sensitive if someone dresses up as a Holocaust victim? Or as Hitler? The capital-T Truth is that these costumes/portrayals come with baggage. If your parents were Holocaust survivors and you saw someone dressed as Hitler, or a Holocaust victim, would you be offended? Or would you think that the joke was funny? It's not. And I think it's difficult for you to realize that because "WASP" Americans historically has not encountered such historical pain. And I don't blame you for that because our society does a poor job of teaching to people the pains and sufferings of minorities.
Mon Oct 29 2012 14:10
White person to white person: You're embarrassing me. Having a person of color dress as a "prep" is different from having a white kid go out in blackface. You're neglecting the long history of power differentials in this country. We should be sensitive to each other at BC, we should be aware of the way our costumes can hurt each other. It's not about being hypersensitive, it is about being aware of the "very special" community in which we live. I'm glad that you're ready to think and discuss, and you're right that fear of offending others can paralyze that conversation. However, a Halloween costume is not a conducive medium for those important conversations, and it is disrespectful to make a mockery of someone else's culture so that you can be a sexy Indian Princess or Serena Williams in blackface.

log out