Halloween is nothing like it used to be. I was a late-October baby, and my childhood birthday pictures swap cakes and candles for ghosts and ghouls. Two Halloweens in a row I was a "movie star," which in 1989 meant a long "red carpet" dress from the thrift store and really, really big sunglasses.
But these days Halloween is either an excuse for someone to slap a tail on a black-lace teddy and call it a "sexy tiger" costume, or to slather on some black face, a ball cap, fake bling and voilà! "Sexy thug."
The 10 members of Ohio University's STARS organization were fed up with offensive costumes that reinforce negative racial and cultural stereotypes. So STARS, which stands for Students Teaching About Racism in Society, created a poster campaign to draw attention to those costume choices that are simply "not okay." With just five powerful posters featuring young men or women of various races holding a photo of a "racist costume," the students of STARS have started a movement.
Since posting pictures of the "We're a Culture, Not a Costume" campaign online last Friday, STARS President Sarah Williams and her organization have gotten attention from local news, CNN, MSNBC and even Germany. A nerve has been struck.
In between their classes, The Root caught up with Williams, a senior majoring in political science, and the posters' designer, Taylor See, a junior retail-merchandising and fashion product-development major. We talked about the origin of the campaign and where it's headed next.
The Root: So, what is STARS? What's the organization's goal?
SW: We've been on OU's campus since 1988. STARS started as a class on race taught by Sheila Williams, a psychologist here, and it grew into an organization. Our main purpose is to facilitate a discussion about racism and discrimination. Our purpose is to educate. We brought a former knight of the KKK to OU, we've sponsored voter-registration drives and hosted a panel on Islamophobia.
TR: How do Halloween costumes fit in?
TS: Just last year a group of white students hosted a "black party." Attendees painted their skin brown, showed up in "grills" and "urban clothing." They served chicken and watermelon. We decided that was something we should address. And when the time came this October, we thought a poster campaign would be an inexpensive way to spread the word.
TR: What's been the reaction thus far?
SW: I put the images on my personal Tumblr account last Friday, and it just skyrocketed. I had 58 followers and now I have 486, plus more than 17,000 notes. I wasn't expecting that at all.
TR: I heard the campaign almost didn't happen.
TS: I designed our banner and slogan in one night; the following day, we found out that we weren't going to get funded to print the posters and post them on campus. It was devastating. None of us knew how to respond. But Sarah approached the university's dean, and he saved us by agreeing to print 600 copies. This campaign almost never happened, and the fact that it did was a miracle.
TR: What's been the national feedback from the posters?
SW: We say it's 80-20. Eighty percent of it is positive. We've gotten tons of responses about founding satellite STARS groups at different middle schools, high schools and colleges around the country. That made me feel great. A 14-year-old wants to join Students Teaching About Racism in Society? That's amazing.
TR: And that last 20 percent, the negative reactions?
SW: That 20 percent can be broken up into two categories. Ten percent is like, "Hey, what about this costume that's racist, and what about that? Isn't that offensive, too?" Those are legitimate questions, and we appreciate it. There are tons of offensive Halloween costumes. But we have less than 10 members and less than $50 in our organization's account. But they have a valid point.
The last 10 percent is really negative and rooted in ignorance and white privilege. Those we just delete.
TR: Explain what you mean by white privilege as it relates to wearing an offensive costume.
SW: There is a historical context to this, a history of white people painting their faces black and imitating black people in a degrading way. The majority culture doesn't understand that. Granted, it is Halloween and it's all fun, but look at the history and see how it affects people.
TR: So what makes a Halloween costume offensive or racist?
SW: Usually people always go for the negative aspect of the culture or the race, and all that does is reinforce negative stereotypes. Everyone wants to be "a thug" or "a criminal," but nobody wants to be Thurgood Marshall, W.E.B. Du Bois or Barack Obama. Someone will dress up as "a dirty Mexican," but no one's going as [Supreme Court Justice] Sonia Sotomayor.
TR: Where does the "We're a Culture, Not a Costume" campaign go from here?
SW: First of all, we want to say, "Thank you so much" to everyone for supporting us. We're getting emails from all over, from the dean of Columbia University to students who've been discriminated against on their own campuses, to OU alums who are proud of what we're doing. We're hoping to do more posters next year, and we're happy to let colleges use our posters and also donate to STARS so that we can continue to do this work.
TS: At the end of the day, I hope the campaign will transcend to be more than just an idea discussed in the context of Halloween, because racism — especially in its subtle forms, like this one — is a problem that we minorities face every day. Hopefully people have learned something from this. Or at the very least have taken the time to stop and think.
Helena Andrews is a regular contributor to The Root and author of Bitch Is the New Black, a memoir in essays. Follow her on Twitter.