For Halloween this year the Center for Diversity and Inclusion (CDI) created a campaign asking students to be more mindful when selecting their costumes. The campaign, called “My Culture Is Not A Costume,” features students holding pictures of culturally themed costumes.
The costumes depicted in the campaign included blackface, a “sexy” island girl, a “sexy” Native American couple’s costume and a stereotypical depiction of a Mexican man wearing a sombrero and poncho while firing two pistols into the sky.
So far the campaign has received attention from Fox 13, The Salt Lake Tribune and the Associated Press, yet to be released. The campaign also garnered attention on Twitter and Facebook after SUU shared the flyers on their official Facebook page.
In a now-deleted post, the campaign received negative feedback from SUU alumni and Cedar City community members.
Mark Miller, a 2012 education degree graduate, said he believed the CDI created this campaign to, “… stay relevant to current talking points in today’s diverse media culture.” However, he did not believe they achieved their goal of spreading mindfulness and education.
“The campaign may have achieved its goal with a few people, but I believe that it did more harm than good because its pretenses were divisive,” Miller said. “This type of campaign puts people into little boxes of division which is a sad political strategy and certainly should not be used as a strategy for education.”
Miller said he believed “My Culture is not a Costume” was a lecture campaign, and instead people should lift each other up along their way instead of condemning them.
“We need to reach in love and share messages of inspiration to help other people decide to be considerate of other cultures,” Miller said. “Unfortunately, this campaign was very authoritative, dogmatic and condescending from the start.”
When asked how the campaign could possibly be improved upon, he said, “Honestly, I think an attempt to be the Halloween costume police has a false premise to begin with. I would focus my efforts elsewhere.”
Amanda Callaway, a 2004 nursing program graduate, commented on the original post, stating the campaign did not represent the SUU she knew and would want her children to attend.
Callaway said she hoped students were only getting involved in the campaign because, “… of their own feelings and life experiences, not because they are pressured to pick sides and shame someone.”
One of Callaway’s main concerns was while the campaign did generate discussion and mindfulness in general, it did not feel right.
“It feels angry,” Callaway said. “It would’ve been more effective had they used, ‘Be Mindful When You Dress Up This Year.’”
Callaway said she would have preferred to see students sharing their own encounters with cultural appropriation instead of holding up pictures of costumes, and she believes the students could have used this platform to share their cultural experiences.
“We need more of their viewpoints,” Callaway said. “As a community, we aren’t always as diverse as the university itself, and what better chance to hear from people beyond our demographic?”
Her final thought was that the students had an opportunity to showcase their home communities and cultures, and had a responsibility to be kind when they did so.
“That’s the SUU I know, and want my kids to attend,” Callaway said.
Heilala Havea, a freshman biology major from Salt Lake City, and Siuila Uele, a CDI Beacon and senior accounting major from American Samoa, said the campaign was meant to spread mindfulness and bring awareness about cultural appropriation during Halloween.
“With the campaign it was solely just awareness, (we weren’t) trying to change people’s minds,” Uele said. “Keep in mind that certain things can impact a specific group of people in a certain way.”
Uele said in America people have become too complacent when considering others, sometimes saying, “Oh it’s not that bad.” Uele said this could lead to forgetting that by doing so they could possibly invalidate the feelings or the experiences of people in different cultures.
“It’s kind of hard nowadays just because everything is a culture,” Uele admitted. “Religion is a culture, your way of life is a culture, where you come from. There’s so many different things that we can identify with as being culture, I think that’s what makes it kind of hard.”
Both students expressed that, in their minds, there is a difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation, but that one person cannot speak for an entire culture when it comes to this opinion.
Havea specifically pointed out that the SUU Bookstore sells hats featuring patterns commonly found in traditional Polynesian tattoos.
Havea said SUU’s Polynesian inspired hats made her feel as though her culture was so appreciated that the school was actually selling apparel with her cultural designs on it.
Havea and Uele felt the line is drawn when a costume becomes sexual or depicts a stereotype.
“That could be degrading almost to our race and who we are as a people or culture in general,” Havea said.
The same went for characters whose outfits showcased cultural influences, especially Disney princesses. Uele said dressing like a character, “… is completely different from trying to dress up as what you stereotypically think (a person of that culture) looks like.”
Uele said it was great and cute when she saw kids and adults dressed as Moana and Maui, but that the grass skirts should cover people’s butts and chest wraps should cover people’s breasts.
“If you’re going to be the character, then try your best to stick to the character, and not try to (make it sexual),” Uele said. “To me it’s just being mindful as to how you’re portraying that character.”
Without the campaign, Uele said she thought a lot of healthy conversations she has had about the topic would not have happened.
“I still think that the campaign was a great thing because it allowed for us to talk freely and healthy about these types of issues that are happening,” Uele said.
Director of the CDI Maria Martinez, and Coordinator of the CDI Christopher Mendoza, wanted the campaign to start a conversation on campus and spread mindfulness, and did not expect it to grow quite so large.
“I don’t think we anticipated that anyone outside of Southern Utah would pick it up,” Martinez said. “And now outside of Utah because the AP is picking it up.”
Martinez said while other schools have done similar campaigns, SUU’s blew up because it was from a rural part of Utah.
“I don’t think we should be viewed any different than what’s going on in Salt Lake or any other big cities, but I wonder if that’s part of the interest or the draw,” Martinez said.
If nothing else, they are both pleased by the campaign’s success in starting a conversation.
“I think it’s mostly just been an educational campaign from the diversity center. There are ways to not appropriate culture and how sometimes it’s inappropriate to develop a narrow-minded image and then make that the entire experience of these students and these cultures,” Mendoza said. “More than anything it was just to bring a campus conversation about these issues, and then being able to amplify the voices of marginalized students.”
Mendoza said many people were taking the campaign as a directive, but he doesn’t believe any of the language in the campaign reflected that. It was not meant to shame people or make them subscribe to an ideology.
“It’s really just trying to be respectful to different cultures, and thinking of how that’s just a positive thing to do in general, to consider someone else’s perspective,” Mendoza said.
Next year, Martinez said the CDI hopes to expand the campaign and bring in cultures and other examples they did not cover this year into the mix.
“We would like to include religions, particularly in this community people dressing up as Mormon missionaries and/or (Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints), and however people dress to make fun of (the) Mormon religion,” Martinez said.
Featured Photo Courtesy of Marie Claire. Poster Photos Courtesy of the Center for Diversity and Inclusion.