Halloween costume campaign spawns meme, fuels race debate

Editor’s Note: The University of Colorado-Boulder is advising students not to dress in sexually explicit or potentially offensive costumes during Halloween this year, using an Ohio University student-led campaign as its guide to banish gender and cultural stereotypes from the fright night costume closet. CNN’s Emanuella Grinberg wrote about the OU effort in the article below and followed up on the topic last Halloween.

Story highlights

"We're a culture, not a costume" ad campaign goes viral, generates race debate

Memes feature dog with picture of man in dog costume, Kurt Cobain and image of Nickelback

Poster layout, themes lend themselves to exploitability, knowyourmeme editor says

"Our main purpose was to have a dialogue," student says

CNN  — 

Ohio University student Taylor See and her friends expected some controversy to arise from a project to raise awareness of what it means to dress up as an ethnic stereotype for Halloween. But they weren’t expecting the comparisons to robots or dogs.

The campaign, “We’re a culture, not a costume,” features students of different races holding pictures of costumes of racial or ethnic stereotypes: a geisha, a suicide bomber, a Native American, a “Mexican on a donkey,” a person with their skin painted black and a metal grill in their mouth.

Brainchild of Students Teaching About Racism in Society, the campaign drew international media attention, generated intense online debate and perhaps most telling, it became the object of several Internet spoofs.

The memes also come in various forms: a real golden retriever with a picture of a man in a dog costume, a na’vi from the film “Avatar” holding a picture of a man painted blue, a LOLcat, a dalek with a picture of a dalek, a unicorn with a unicorn, and so on.

See, who designed the imagery, never expected it to get this big. Her first reaction? “Wow. A conversation is happening, because that’s all we wanted, to make people think.”

Then came the realization that their original message was getting lost in the mockery, she said.

“These people that are putting out characters of vampires, dogs, robots, they don’t have anything better to do with their time?” she said. “It’s silly. We’re talking about actual race, actual people that are actually affected. I guarantee you robots and dogs are not affected by what we’re trying to say.”

The most startling was an image of a monkey holding a picture of the black student featured in the original poster, she said.

“That was just awful. The fact that people think that’s OK shows why this discussion is still important and relevant, unfortunately,” she said.

By their nature, these kinds of memes have a way of trivializing the original message, especially when it comes to ad campaigns or PSAs dealing with social issues, said Brad Kim, editor of knowyourmeme.com, a site that tracks viral stuff on the Web.

This campaign in particular has a high “exploitability” quotient because it’s about race and stereotypes, perennial hot topics on the Internet, where people can comment anonymously and therefore more freely than they would face-to-face, he said.

The posters’ design also sets up the objects for exploitation, practically beckoning people to deploy their Photoshop skills to play around with various themes, he said. Kim cited a derivative featuring grunge icon Kurt Cobain holding a picture of the lead singer of Nickelback.

“This would be a perfect example of a movement or campaign with a fixed set of messages that turned into a visual mad lib and turned into something bigger,” he said. “I don’t think they’re all necessarily arguing against the campaign or lashing out against it, but it does the subtle job of trivializing the subject’s topic, which is the Internet’s subtle way of saying, ‘No, I beg to differ.’ “

Most of the reaction the campaign received directly has been positive, said the group’s president, Sarah Williams. Other schools in the United States have asked for permission to use the posters, along with a primary school teacher from South Korea.

“Our main purpose was to have a dialogue and discussion and make people think and we’ve definitely hit a nerve with people,” she said.

On the other end of the spectrum, they’ve also received hate mail, including an e-mail with the n-word.

Some criticism takes the students to task for being too sensitive and taking themselves too seriously. Others questioned whether the same concept applied to white people, or costumes of leprechauns or rednecks.

“I find this article offensive and stereotypical. Just because I’m white doesn’t mean that I take my Halloween costume as anything more than a costume. Get a life Ohio University,” one CNN.com commenter said.

“Whew. I’m going to wear a XXXL suit and stuff it full of pillows, draw some fake beard on my face, add some extra chins, shuffle around dancing badly and go as Chaz Bono. But I’m white, so this is not offensive,” said another.

The idea to highlight the issue of racial and ethnic costumes resulted from the prevalence of students going in blackface last Halloween to dress like rappers and Tiger Woods, Williams said. An off-campus party last year also encouraged guests to come painted black and dressed “ghetto.”

“We don’t think we’re being too sensitive. I think that’s just the reaction from the majority culture,” Williams said, “It’s hard to put yourself in that position of being a minority when you’re not a part of the minority. Usually the majority culture can exploit and make fun of that.”

Stereotypes have the power to hurt, especially when they embody false or archaic notions about someone, added See, who is black. Not all Mexicans travel on donkeys or wear sombreros, just like not all of them are illegal. And not all black people are rappers or young single mothers or behave like Tiger Woods.

“I fight every day to prove I’m not a stereotype,” she said. “I get good grades, I try to be articulate, but it’s frustrating because costumes like that tell me that all of my efforts are fruitless because this is what people think of me at the end of day.”