Opinion

Racists, dummies and bad costumes: Robyn Urback

Queen's University students didn't wait for next October to inspire yet another round of the tedious "spot the racist" costume game.

The tedious 'spot the racist' costume game came early this year

Queen's University is investigating after photos appeared online showing white people dressed as Buddhist monks, Middle Eastern sheiks, Mexican prisoners and Viet Cong fighters in rice hats during an off-campus student party in Kingston, Ont. (Twitter)

Once a year — or maybe twice, depending on how bored everyone is — we play this little game of "spot the racist," where university students dressed in bindis or headdresses are shamed on social media, in mainstream media and eventually in excruciating, conciliatory campus town halls.

This happens usually but not exclusively around Halloween, when students (who have somehow remained deaf to the fact that this happens every year) ill-advisedly decide to wear a culture as a costume. Evidence of their stupidity is posted online, where calls for expulsion and/or other forms of serious reprimand soon follow.

On that cue, defenders of costumed youth everywhere emerge to lambaste the so-called PC police, and also to make what they think is a hilarious, unique quip about people dressing up as "their" culture by wearing shamrocks on St. Patrick's Day. Then come the lectures about privilege, liberal elites, cultural appropriation and social justice warriors — arguments that peter out just as soon as everyone realizes they can pick up where they left off next time.

Lucky us: we didn't have to wait until next October. On Tuesday, comedian Celeste Yim came across photos on her Facebook of a party attended by Queen's University students who dressed up as monks, Viet Cong guerrillas, Mexicans in prison garb and Middle Eastern sheiks in accordance with the "countries" theme. Yim posted the photos on Twitter, where she decried the event as "shockingly racist," and the story was picked up by nearly every mainstream media organization, including this one.

'The costumes are indisputably and unequivocally offensive, tasteless, and should not be tolerated,' says Toronto comedian Celeste Yim. Faces of the students have been blurred by CBC News. (Twitter)

In response, Queen's University principal Daniel Woolf released a statement saying the university is "taking the matter very seriously, and [will] continue to look into it."

"If we determine that this was a Queen's sponsored or sanctioned event, we will take appropriate action."

That response was just vague enough to compound everyone's frustrations: those upset by the costumes were outraged that the university hadn't outlined swift, specific action, while those who think the issue has been blown out of proportion were aghast that the administration would be meddling in students' personal lives. And so goes the usual routine — just as it did last year, and the year before that, and the year before that.

Partygoers dressed as Buddhist monks. (Twitter)

There is, however, nuance to be found under the impassioned name-calling being sputtered from both sides. It involves the recognition, for one, that most of these students probably aren't frothing racists, but rather, just uninformed dolts who didn't read the news last Halloween, and who don't understand why someone might take offence to them wearing a symbol of profound religious or cultural meaning as a costume.

It also involves the recognition that while some people might not have a problem with students dressed as people of other cultures, there are very legitimate, genuine reasons why Mexican prisoner or Tibetan monk costumes would be considered offensive. Some of those reasons are more obvious than others (see: Mexican prisoner), but just because it might take a bit of digging to find the "offence" doesn't mean it's any less real.

All that said, we will certainly never get anywhere if the impulse, from all ends, is to sprint to the extreme each and every time this comes up. So, how about next October, instead of the conversation going as it did this time — "This is shockingly racist!" then "Pft, crybabies..." —  we opt instead for, "Hey, I don't think you're a Nazi, but maybe dress as a cat next time?" followed by "OK"?

Maybe then we'll have a shot at getting through the year without playing out the same tedious routine.

CBC speaks to students about controversy 2:44

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About the Author

Robyn Urback

Columnist

Robyn Urback is an opinion columnist with CBC News and a producer with the CBC's Opinion section. She previously worked as a columnist and editorial board member at the National Post. Follow her on Twitter at:

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