November 7, 2014

Behind the mask of Halloween

Courtesy of Andrew Koski

Halloween night, I decided to go out with friends despite reading article after article about the racist and insensitive costumes typical of the holiday. As the night neared its end, I was thoroughly surprised that I had not seen anything offensive and excited that I would make it through an entire Halloween without having my cultural and racial identity mocked. But I soon realized that my relief was premature as I watched an Asian-American student enter a shuttle dressed as a “Cholo”—a racist caricature of a Mexican gangster.

In that moment, I was forced into an awkward position—choosing between seeming over-sensitive and like I “can’t take a joke,” or letting someone blatantly objectify an important part of my identity. However, I chose to speak up and ask him what he was wearing. He confirmed that he was, in fact, dressed as a Cholo. When I confronted him and explained how racist and offensive his costume was, he ignored me. A fellow Latina and I got off the shuttle exclaiming, “thanks for the racist costume.” The entire shuttle laughed at us. Another loss.

I spent the rest of the night pissed, wondering if this was another incident that would be swept under the rug as an “isolated occurrence.” The next morning, I saw pictures of many others dressed in similar attire. Again, I was faced with a dilemma: silence and complicity or speaking up and being met with ridicule and belittlement.

People of color on this campus are forced into this double-bind whenever they encounter other students’ racially insensitive behavior. At this university, this is a burden unique to students of color and it is ridiculous that we must shoulder this burden in an environment which is supposed to foster inclusivity and diversity.

The burden is only made heavier by the resistance we encounter when we do decide to defend ourselves and our friends. Why does everyone believe that people of color are fabricating or overstating the microaggressions and outright instances of racism they constantly face on this campus? Why is our first reaction to discredit or downplay a person’s lived experience for the sake of “freedom of expression” and/or objectivity?

Is it possible that one’s privilege may keep them from seeing how prevalent these experiences are? Perhaps. Revisiting our campus history, though, shows that these are more than isolated incidents. From The Maroon:

On May 8, 2012 Alpha Delta Phi (Alpha Delt) held a pledging event, which involved first-year pledges performing a racial caricature, mowing the lawn in front of the fraternity house wearing oversized sombreros while Latin music played from a stereo.

A couple weeks later, Delta Upsilon (DU) hosted a party entitled “DU Presents: Conquistadors and Aztec Hoes [sic],” which in its description encouraged attendees to bring “an unlimited need to conquer, spread disease, and enslave natives.” 

What people believe to be isolated incidents are a lot more prevalent than the naysayers would have you believe, and they create a toxic environment for students of color. Unfortunately, there’s more.

On Friday, May 24 2013, a shipment of four or five boxes filled with more folded-up boxes addressed to “Reggin Toggaf”—a homophobic and racist slur if read backwards—was left at [Phi Delt’s] front door.

Just a month before, the University was forced to come face to face with the dark side of anonymity when “Politically Incorrect UChicago Confessions,” a Facebook page that proclaimed “racism, homophobia, prejudice, offensiveness in all forms is welcome,” turned into a series of attacks aimed at racial groups and even specific individuals. 

We are uncomfortable with KKK members, but look the other way when subtle forms of racism, such as cultures and people being mocked, occur. We say nothing when women of color are fetishized for their bodies and other forms of racial microaggressions occur. Are people going to acknowledge the fact that these seemingly “harmless” costumes are stereotypes that lead to police brutality and are informed by a history of racism that is anything but comical?

The most important part of this whole situation is that all of the instances I’ve recounted happened on our campus. It is our fellow students who experience this dehumanization. The politically incorrect confessions came from this student body. Even worse, the perpetrators were people we call “friends.” Yet no one stepped up when this individual decided to dress up and mock Latin@s*. No one in these fraternities said, “hey bro, those slurs can really hurt someone and aren’t a joke.” How are students of color supposed to feel comfortable and safe on the University of Chicago campus, especially when it takes extreme measures for our concerns to even be heard, let alone addressed?

Personally, I was hurt most by the fact that the person in the racially offensive costume was another person of color. I would never imagine dressing up as a stereotypical Asian person for a few laughs, but this person seemed nonchalant about his actions. If people of color cannot even stand in solidarity, where are we supposed to find support? Why do we expect victims of some kind of injustice to stand alone because it’s “their issue” and not “our problem.”

I write this letter to the campus in hopes that people will see that we have much work to do if we want to be a community that is truly welcoming to students of color. We cannot continue to sit idly by as people of color continue to reveal how this campus has often presented itself as a hostile environment for them. We cannot treat instances of racial insensitivity as issues for students of color to combat and face alone. These situations have to be campus issues, and our reactions to these events will demonstrate what kind of people and students we are. The façade of innocence, though tempting, is a burden for the students of color on campus who are asked to not only carry all the weight of a UChicago education, but also the weight of a society still grappling with its racist past and present.

So what can we all do to address this situation? First and foremost, we can give this situation the recognition it needs and deserves by not ignoring how frequently microaggressions like this occur. Students of color have experiences everyone could learn from, if only we stopped debating and listened first. Next, we must come to some mutual idea of respect. We all stand to benefit from deciding to condemn instances of racism even when they seem subtle or harmless because people deserve to have their identities respected. If more people commit to respecting this right in our personal lives, in Greek life, or when our friends say things without thinking, we could foster a community that takes the life of the mind beyond the classroom, into our social interactions by accepting that words have power. We must constantly evaluate the way we are treating one another if we believe in the benefits of diversity and intellectual inquiry—because these values mean nothing if we do not have basic respect for one another. This campus will continue to be divided until it takes a stand against the harmful mistreatment of our students. We must have accountability.

I want students of color to feel safe and comfortable on this campus. I want all students to share this goal. Then, I will know that I am not alone.

*This is the accepted gender-neutral term for referring to those who identify as Latin American

Vincente Perez is a third-year in the College majoring in anthropology and comparative race and ethnic studies.