Written by: Amneet Mann, News Editor
This Halloween season, SFU’s intercultural engagement team is working alongside other university departments, such as Residence and Housing, to prompt conversations around cultural appropriation.
The intercultural engagement team is promoting a #notacostume campaign around the university to educate students about how certain costumes can be culturally appropriative or otherwise offensive.
“Most people do not pick out a costume with the intention of being offensive,” reads the campaign page on SFU’s website. “However regardless of intention, costumes can still perpetuate harmful stereotypes. [ . . . ] Cultural appropriation can take many forms, but around Halloween it often refers to people wearing ‘costumes’ that may reduce cultures to jokes and/or stereotypes.”
The campaign included putting up posters around the university, holding an information session on October 23, and offering additional informational resources for students online.
“I believe it’s the first time that I’ve seen a campaign like this at SFU that is being marketed as well as this one, and is accessible as this one is to our students,” said Zoe Woods, associate director of residence life for SFU’s Residence and Housing department, in an interview with The Peak.
“I think [it] gives us a platform to be able to have the conversation in an even more tangible way,” Woods added.
The campaign this year is being supported throughout SFU’s residences, but Woods explained that the topic of cultural appropriation was not new for the residence staff. She stated that student staff in residences receive consistent training throughout the term to prepare them to have conversations that may be sensitive to residents.
“I know there have been conversations that occurred in our residence communities in the past on a smaller scale around cultural appropriation, so I’m excited to see it happening on this level and to [see it] be talked about as much as it is in our community,” said Woods.
According to Woods, between 40% and 60% of residents are international students, making it “an even more important topic within our residence halls and on our campus than in other areas of our Burnaby community.”
The conversation around cultural appropriation has been opened up in the university in other ways, such as by SFU archaeology professor George Nicholas who recently published an article on the subject in Sapiens digital magazine.
While Nicholas acknowledged that stereotypes perpetuated through culturally appropriated costumes may be harmful, he argued that Halloween “is essentially a display of cultural anarchy,” which makes the topic difficult to objectively approach during the season.
“Is a Pocahontas costume more or less acceptable than a slasher? What if the child wearing it is Native American? Is a zombie costume so far removed from Haitian folklore that it no longer counts as culturally derivative? Is a white child dressing up as a black superhero from the recent Black Panther movie a positive counterpoint to years of black children dressing as white superheroes?” Nicholas asked in his article.
Nicholas moved on to the distinction between “cultural borrowing,” a benign practice, and “cultural appropriation,” which involves the commodification of another’s heritage and ultimately ends up harming the culture being appropriated.
Both Woods and Nicholas expressed that it was good to open up conversations around the subject and let students reflect on their own understanding of cultural appropriation.
Woods believed that the biggest impact of the campaign so far had been felt in the conversations heard between students on residence.
“[Our front desk staff] had a lot of conversations with students about, ‘oh, I didn’t recognize that a vampire costume may be inappropriate,’ or ‘hey, I was going to dress up as XYZ for Halloween and maybe I should think about that a bit more,’” said Woods.
“I think becoming more aware and [ . . . ] getting those conversations started and providing the language for students to explore that has been really important.” – Zoe Woods, associate director of residence life, SFU Residence and Housing department
Woods encourages students who have had negative experience around this issue to seek out university resources. For residents, Woods noted that their community advisors or front desk in the housing office would be available to support students. For SFU students who are not residents, Woods encouraged them to reach out to either SFU’s International Services for Students office — whether or not they are international students — or the Health and Counselling department.