Dear Gary Mason,
"Sometimes a person dressed as a Buddhist monk at a costume party is just someone dressed up as a Buddhist monk at a costume party".
That's how you ended your piece addressing the current controversy at Queen's University, and that's how I plan on starting mine. For those others who may be reading this and aren't presently aware of the situation, a group of students at Queen's University recently came under fire for attending a theme party called "Countries of the World". In your own words, this party saw "mostly white participants dressed up as Buddhist monks, Middle Eastern sheiks, Viet Cong fighters and Rastafarians".
Now, in your piece responding to this event, you make a couple of statements that I, personally, find problematic. Now to your credit, you do acknowledge that these students are behaving in ways that could be interpreted as problematic, but you find it wrong that they have been lambasted over the internet and branded as bigots. And then you go on to make a statement that this act offended "some" people, and that you will be able to find "some" people who are offended by "just about anything". Now I'm not going to say you are wrong in this statement, and I acknowledge that a great variety of people, including myself in certain situations, have tended to believe the same thing.
But specifically addressing this situation, I would like to offer my point of view, speaking as someone who is a person of colour and also attending university (thankfully, not the one this occurred at).
Firstly, yes, this party was themed "Countries of the World". Unfortunately, I did not have the privilege of receiving an invite to what seems to be an incredibly swell shindig, but I have a gut feeling that the description did not tell people to come dressed up in the (badly put-together) cultural representations of other people. Off the top of my head, I can think of a couple ways to fit this theme without dressing in a way that is deeply engrained in someone's culture or heritage. This is the core the problem in this situation- someone's culture/heritage/background/ethnicity is not a costume.
There is a difference between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation and it is important to emphasize that difference. If one has been accepted and embraced by a certain community and want to represent or showcase their culture in a positive light, then borrowing a piece of their culture whilst having the appreciation and the reasoning to back up this decision is one thing. And I for one, don't foresee anyone having a problem or being offended by this.
The problem with the situation at Queen's lies in the fact that people dressed up in blatantly stereotypical elements of what they perceived to be someone else's culture. A person's culture is not a prop. It is not a costume. It is part of their livelihood and something they should be proud of representing. Putting it in the same category as hotdog onesies and "Anything But Clothes"-themed parties doesn't show someone you have respect for their culture, and what's worse is that using cheap, stereotypical elements shows that you don't think their culture has any relevancy or legitimacy in your life.
There is also a problem with this being mostly white students as well. Many elements of these costumes, such as dreadlocks, to give you an example, are things that have been actively discriminated against by white people while at the same time being appropriated by them. There are plenty of examples of people of colour not being hired for jobs or told their hairstyles were unacceptable for school or their profession and meanwhile plenty of white celebrities wear dreadlocks and are upheld as edgy. There is a history behind these elements of people's hair (or lack of, in the case of the Buddhist monk costume, in which this was recreated using a latex swim cap) that these costumes 1) fail to respect and 2) perpetuate this double standard.
Another issue is that these are "just" costumes. They are obviously temporary, and at the end of the day, these white students can take them off and go on living their lives with the inherent privileges this affords them. But for many victims of discrimination and racial profiling that happen to look like the people these students dressed up as, cannot do that. They can't just flip and switch and appear a certain way to society that allows them to not be discriminated against. And costumizing this struggle makes a mockery out of it for people who deal with these things every single day.
I've seen people say that we should give them the benefit of the doubt, because they might not have known that they did anything wrong. To be honest, I find these statements quite troubling. Firstly because I find it hard to believe they didn't know they were doing anything wrong. As a university student myself, I cannot begin to tell you the PC culture that exists on university campuses, and the amount of PSAs that come out every Halloween detailing the fact that culture is not a costume. For these student to not have known better is an incredibly poor excuse, because these kinds of things are staring them in their face everywhere they go.
Secondly, I think if they truly realized they did something wrong, they would have come forward and apologized. Not only has this not happened (to the best of my knowledge), but I've seen this conversation splinter off in two completely unprecedented directions. I've seen my friends who attend Queen's apologize for the behaviour of peers that they do not interact with, and I've seen people who went to this party who have brushed it off and even proudly proclaimed that it was "lit". These people are adults who, as far as I'm aware, haven't shown remorse for their actions and are even defending them without understanding what exactly went wrong. And therein lies the root of the issue.
You say, in your piece, that we "need to be careful that we don’t undermine progress on this issue by citing examples of it that are an overreach and of such a tenuous nature they alarm people for an entirely different reason". You say that we shouldn't shame these people or label them as "bigots- or worse". And if I stretch my morals to the extent that I do, in fact, give them the benefit of the doubt, then I agree with this statement. Attacking each other for our "mistakes" is not the answer in this scenario. But engaging in constructive discourse is, and I don't think that labeling this as an "overreach" is the kind of action that works to promote this kind of discourse.
I do hope you, as well as my other readers, understand the basis of where I am coming from in the first half of my letter, and I think this is something that other people should make the effort to understand as well. If we don't, we simply lay down the foundation for ignorance, misunderstandings, and being blind to the plights of others. And if we don't address these underlying foundations of ignorance, it becomes harder and harder to stop this ignorance from building up into overt acts of racism. It becomes the catalyst for people to "hold, or propagate intolerant views of others based on their race", as you put it. And this is why I think it's not an overreaction. This is why I think it is something that needs to be addressed. Because if we don't address it now, no one will, and these ideas will proliferate until something such as an openly racist man getting elected to the most powerful position in the world happens, and continues to happen, and this is something that will legitimize racism and racist acts even more.
I know that as much as my fellow Canadians love to point and laugh at the USA for the apparent hole they've dug themselves into, this should serve as a warning that we have these kinds of problems at home as well. And we should take the first steps towards curbing it before it becomes something else entirely.
And one last thing: you say that sometimes a monk costume is just a monk costume. I disagree. A monk "costume" is never just a costume. It is someone's culture and livelihood and at the very least, deserves better than to be boiled down to some half-assed latex swim cap on the head of a privileged white person. Buddhist monks can rock their bald head way better than any of these kids every could.