No Blackface This Year

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Just in case there was any ambiguity about this issue remaining, Northwestern University has made it official: do not wear costumes that reflect cultural stereotypes at Halloween this year. This morning Northwestern’s dean of students, Burgwell Howard, sent the following email to campus:

From: Burgwell J. Howard
Date: Tue, Oct 26, 2010 at 1:00 AM
Subject: Halloween Choices and the Northwestern Communty [sic]

To members of the Northwestern community:

The end of October is quickly approaching, and along with the falling leaves and cooler nights come the Halloween celebrations on our campus and in our community. These celebrations provide opportunities for students to socialize as well as make positive contributions to our community and the Evanston community as a whole. Two notable examples of the positive roles students play include: ‘Project Pumpkin’ sponsored by NCDC and ‘Project Scare’ sponsored by SAE Fraternity and Alpha Phi Sorority.

However, Halloween is unfortunately a time when the normal thoughtfulness and sensitivity of most NU students can be forgotten and some poor decisions are made. Last year our community came together in a forum to talk about the fallout from some widely publicized Halloween costumes and the history behind ‘blackface’, and why many feel this is so offensive. Blackface, for those who do not know, or do not remember involves the darkening one’s skin with polish, paint or some other substance with the goal of impersonating a person of African descent-has been a recurring practice over the past several generations. (For those who were not here or unable to attend the forum we would suggest that you do a quick search on Blackface & Northwestern to get caught up on the discussion.)

Yea, that was awkward. For those of you disinclined to perform a Google search on this one, let it suffice to say that last Halloween two Northwestern students were photographed attending a party in blackface. The negative reaction this provoked, locally and nationally, eventually forced Northwestern to create an extremely expensive scholarship program to attract more black students to attend the school.

Howard is understandably very anxious to avoid something like that again. He goes on:

So, if you are planning to dress-up for Halloween, or will be attending any social gatherings planned for that weekend, please ask yourself these questions before deciding upon your costume choice:

Wearing a funny costume? Is the humor based on “making fun” of real people, human traits or cultures?

Wearing a historical costume? If this costume is meant to be historical, does it further misinformation or historical and cultural inaccuracies?

Wearing a ‘cultural’ costume? Does this costume reduce cultural differences to jokes or sterotypes [sic]?

Could someone take offense with your costume and why?

All clear now? It might have been more effective just to institute a No Blackface rule. Really following all of Howard’s suggestions to the letter would actually eliminate almost all creative costumes, and even some uncreative ones, like witches (“historical and cultural inaccuracies”) and vampires (“reduces cultural differences to jokes or stereotypes”).

There will be a lot of ghost costumes in Evanston this year. [Image via]

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer