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Re-examining 'Hypersensitive Halloween' and Dress With Respect

Published: Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 18:01


As Boston College alumni, we have read Kristy Barnes’ column, seen the reactions on social media, and considered the many responses published in The Heights. As a letter from the UGBC Dress with Respect Committee puts it, one has a duty to “being open and critically analyzing issues before expressing one’s views.” We encourage students, faculty, and alumni to do just this by considering the complexity of this campaign, its chilling effect on free speech, and its lack of attention to existing material inequalities. 
Many of the responses raise unseen white privilege to explain Barnes’ objections to Dress with Respect.  While there is no doubt that white privilege continues to disadvantage people of color systematically, the link between white privilege and costumes is tenuous. For some responding to Barnes’ column, there is no problem leaping directly from hurt feelings to huge societal superstructures of racism. There is no distinction between stereotyping costumes and actual violence, as the letter from BC professors terms it, “the violence of words.” These are unhelpful and potentially dangerous analogies. In Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought, Jonathan Rauch explains this point, writing, “You do not have to be Kant to see what comes after ‘offensive words are bullets’: if you hurt me with words, I reply with bullets, and the exchange is even.” Indeed, this is one gruesome display in a recent Gawker column sympathetic to the violence a white female student (wearing a confederate flag tee as part of a “white trash” costume) suffered at the hands of an offended African-American male. Costumes are not to blame for prejudice in the criminal justice system or for income disparity between whites and minorities, and they are not acts of violence. 
While organizers of the program explain their intent is not to illegalize certain costumes but to get students to think before they act, this is a distinction without a difference for those concerned with the open and rigorous testing of ideas. The use of pious platitudes such as “Dress with Respect” belies the fact that cultures produce ideas that sometimes deserve our scrutiny and criticism and need not command our respect. The huge stigma now associated with dressing as one of another background may deter legitimate exercises of political speech. Dressing up as Osama bin Laden may well offend Middle Eastern or Muslim students. It may also be a way to mock a fascist movement dedicated to the murder of innocent civilians, robbing it of symbolic power and fear. Dressing up as white trash may offend minority students, but it may also satirize the fact that there are actual people who still believe the Civil War ended the wrong way and highlight that these views are ridiculous. 
A moratorium on costumes that could cause offense ignores that mockery is one of the most powerful forms of criticism.  As Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek recently argued in The New York Times, the surest way to degrade a culture is to elevate it above criticism, to deem it unassailable. True respect of cultural plurality requires a critical gaze, not gag orders. The monumental Black Like Me would now not be possible for a white student, because the standard of acceptability is neither the intent of the costumed person nor the reasonable reaction from society at large, only the feelings of the thinnest-skinned individual.
Our colleague Amelia Wirts writes, “It is easy, as privileged white people, to miss these things.” So is it easy, as privileged people, to point them out. Debates that take place in college newspapers over Halloween costumes may make us all feel like we’ve done our part to unpack the invisible knapsack of white privilege and assuage our guilt, but wasn’t it easy? For the Sioux Nation struggling to raise enough money to buy back land that was stolen from them, for the Pakistani innocents butchered in our drone strikes, for the students of all races striving to afford a BC education, what have we done? It’s easy to deplore insensitive costumes and claim victory, but harder to recognize our own complicity in a system of unequal privileges, harder to demand the material redistributions that will detract from our own comfort. These activists are not as radical as they think they are. If they really wanted change, they might acknowledge their own privileges. They might consider that a bachelor’s degree is itself a privilege for just one percent of the world’s population. 
Leveling the playing field requires that we rejoice less in “teaching moments” and more in the chance to craft concrete proposals for change. If we are concerned with white privilege, we might call for the end of legacy admissions, for example, which perpetuate the unequal advantages conferred to whites a generation ago. But of course, that is not likely because we were never really serious about white privilege.
We just wanted to feel like we were. 
Brendan Benedict, BC ’12
Ryan Folio, BC ’12

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