This fall the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) implemented a Costume Campaign to eliminate costumes deemed “explicitly problematic” from SSMU’s 4Floors event, according to a report by the SSMU Equity Commissioners, after an incident involving an attendee in blackface at last year’s event.
However, the Campaign itself was controversial as it depicted students in the offensive costumes it was trying to ban. Concerns were also raised on the process of approval for costumes. On November 19, SSMU held a public forum to discuss the Campaign and the issues associated with its implementation.
What is cultural appropriation?
While students at the forum generally agreed that the goal of the Campaign was to prevent cultural appropriation, students had difficulty agreeing on what cultural appropriation entailed.
SSMU’s Costume Campaign laid out several questions to consider when dressing up, including, “Does your costume mock or condescend historically oppressed people and/or cultures? Does your costume caricature oppressive, historical, and/or current conditions of marginalized groups or persons in a way that may serve to trivialize them?”
Some of the examples provided by SSMU included popular Disney characters such as Pocahontas and Jasmine.
SSMU Equity Commissioner Justin Koh gave more criteria. “One of the questions [asked by volunteers] was does your costume require you to paint your skin colour to match the skin colour of a different race?”
Some of the attendees at the forum claimed that the application of face paint was an inadequate definition of cultural appropriation. Despite discussion, the attendees did not agree on where cross-cultural exchange transitioned into cultural appropriation.
One attendee asked the question of whether cultural appropriation could be perpetrated by people of colour. While attendees believed this was possible, SSMU forum facilitator Annie Chen disagreed.
“Cultural appropriation stems from very problematic ideas due to privilege, the privilege that white people have,” Chen told The Daily in an email.
Where do you draw the line?
Students at the forum voiced concerns on what they saw as the relative subjectivity of the volunteers in deciding which costumes were culturally appropriative and which were not. SSMU volunteers at the forum mentioned that they received as little as 20 minutes of training before being asked to judge costumes at the door.
Koh told The Daily in an interview that it was a matter of judgment. “We really left it to the conversation between the individual coming in that costume and the volunteers.”
An issue discussed at the forum was the possibility of censoring individuals who identified with the culture portrayed in their costume. This issue became especially problematic when such cultural associations were not immediately known to volunteers. Students at the forum were undecided on the issue.
“You have cases where an Indigenous person came in a costume that was part of their culture, and they felt they had the right to wear it that night. Who are we as someone who didn’t identify as Indigenous to say that that’s appropriative?” Koh said, referring to an incident that occurred at this year’s 4Floors.
Was the campaign effective?
Opinions at the forum were varied as to whether the Campaign was a success, especially the targeting of costumed people at the door. One participant alleged that attempting to discuss the issues of cultural appropriation with intoxicated party-goers was unlikely to succeed.
The Equity Commissioner doubted the campaign’s effectiveness, and hoped it would prove unnecessary in future years.
“We don’t think that this is necessarily the right way to go, this is [only] a pilot project,” Koh told The Daily, later adding, “Maybe with a more educated student body we wouldn’t have to check costumes at the door.”