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STARS poster campaign brings attention to culturally insensitive costumes

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As Halloween and the famous Athens Block Party draw closer, campus group Students Teaching Against Racism in Society are taking a stand against costumes that appropriate cultures and identities with a viral poster campaign.

Students Teaching Against Racism in Society, often shortened to STARS, is dedicated to fighting racism and promoting diversity on Ohio University’s campus. Although they do many things, including facilitating conversations between peers and teaming up with other social justice organizations, they are most famous for their “We’re A Culture, Not A Costume” campaign.

The campaign started in 2011, according to STARS President Joshelyn Smith, and it is now in its fourth series.

“Back in 2011, there were a few incidents, a few racially themed costume parties, so STARS executive members went to the administration and asked them to take some sort of action,” Smith, a senior majoring in communications and public advocacy, said. “The administrators didn’t really take it seriously, so a couple weeks later when there were more incidents, STARS took it into their own hands.”

Using help from friends who were photographers, designers and models, the organization created posters showing common stereotypical costumes. The original project was never intended to go beyond the university but “exploded” when they were shared to Facebook.

“Most of the pictures have gotten tons of positive feedback,” Smith said. “People appreciate that we did it. That being said, there’s also a lot where people don’t like it — they think we’re trying to limit their freedoms or ruin Halloween or something. We’re not; we’re just trying to showcase that sometimes even a Halloween costume can have a bigger effect that you might think.”

The campaign focuses primarily on cultural appropriation and racial stereotypes. Series from past years have featured models dressed as geishas or even in blackface juxtaposed against students from the culture being mocked.

Karissa Jones, a senior studying biology and psychology with a minor in African-American studies, was in the most recent campaign. Jones, who is Irish, Saponi and African-American, took part in the campaign to honor her Native American roots and showcase a side of herself most people may not realize is there.

She also did it to make sure that everyone knows that “certain costumes just aren’t okay,” because they too often boil an entire group of people down to a stereotype or a caricature.

“There are some really horrible misrepresentations of my culture out there,” Jones said. “To my culture specifically, it’s really offensive when someone dumbs down something that’s so elaborate and makes it this ugly piece of fabric to go get drunk in. Every bead, every pattern has a meaning, and to have that meaning stripped away and replaced with fake suede and ugly colors is disrespectful to every single person who has ever worn that.”

Not everyone agrees with Jones, though. The posters from the campaign were shared on Facebook, and people from across the country began to weigh in. A commenter from Madison, Wisconsin agreed that college students “shouldn’t mock entire nationalities and cultures while they hopefully have a ball” on Halloween, but many weren’t as understanding.

“I was an Indian last year and might be one again this year,” said one commenter. “I think it’s a cute costume and if it offends anyone, too bad. Sorry this world isn’t tailor made to suit you.”

That kind of thing is to be expected, according to junior photojournalism major Carl Fonticella. He is not a member of STARS, but has seen costumes that mock his Mexican-American heritage in the past. Fonticella said that while the posters had a positive impact, a simple poster cannot fix racism in a society.

“In a perfect world, this kind of poster campaign would solve all the problems,” Fonticella said. “I don’t know how much a poster campaign can do. The campaign went viral on the Internet and gained a lot of traction there, but they still sell the costumes in stores.”

Although the posters may not have the effect STARS would like, they have still brought light to an important issue, Fonticella says.

“If you think there’s any chance that you might hurt someone, it probably isn’t a good, fun costume,” Fonticella said. “You never know who may see it and not say anything about it, but will be very hurt. Just listen to the little voice in the back of your head — if it’s telling you you might hurt someone, just don’t wear the costume.”

 

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