The College of Charleston sent a campuswide email and video reminding students to be safe and “think first” before donning offensive Halloween costumes this year.
“Because we've had some inappropriate, culturally insensitive costumes the past couple of years, we felt like there was a need for more education in the campus community,” said Alicia Caudill, the college’s executive vice president for student affairs.
Similar incidents have unfolded well beyond Charleston, including two photographs of top Virginia leaders in blackface costumes that roiled that state's politics. Earlier this week, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau won reelection but faced headwinds after Time magazine’s publication of pictures of him painted in brownface and wearing an Aladdin costume.
But the college has seen its own issues, too. Last Halloween, the college’s softball team faced backlash after some players dressed up as Hispanics and Border Patrol agents.
Two years ago, the college launched an investigation after a student’s Halloween costume included an orange jumpsuit labeled with the name Freddie Gray, a black man who died after suffering injuries while in custody of Baltimore police.
“If you will be wearing a costume, hosting a party or going out to celebrate with friends, I ask you to think first about your choices,” said College of President Andrew Hsu in his Oct. 16 email to students. “Make sure you do not choose a costume or party theme that is insensitive to someone’s race, culture, gender or sexual identity.”
The accompanying video and article posted on the college’s website Monday said if students are unsure if their costume crosses a line, “it is NEVER acceptable to paint your face any color to represent another race or culture.”
Courtney Hicks, outreach assistant for the college’s Avery Research Center, said some students choose to participate in offensive costumes because they've “never had to deal with a person of color.”
“It is all a joke to them because they don't necessarily know how it may hurt or how it may make others feel when they are dressing in such distasteful costumes,” Hicks said.
But offensive or racially insensitive actions on campus aren’t just limited to Halloween, said second-year public health student Adia Bennon.
Bennon said she was the first to post a video that showed College of Charleston students joking about slavery on a trip to the Francis Marion National Forest in March.
The video shows students riding around the forest pretending to be plantation owners shouting commands to invisible “slaves.”
Bennon helped organize a campuswide protest in response to the video.
Bennon said the proactive Halloween campus message was a “step in the right direction” for the college but was frustrated that the reminder was even necessary.
“I feel like it should be common sense to not culturally appropriate or downplay someone’s ethnicity or race,” she said.
Caudill said this isn’t the first time the college has sent out messaging related to students’ costume choices but that this year’s information was “much more specific.”
“The past messages have said just some basic information about costume choice but that I don't think was resonating with students in the way that we hoped it would,” Caudill said.
Last year, the college revised its student code of conduct to include clearer language surrounding the school’s policy on harassment.
“It's always a balance of students’ constitutional rights, versus violating policies,” she said.
Anytime there is an incident that “creates harm in the community,” Caudill said, the college first determines if it's a violation of the college’s policy.
“We're also going to continue to do education on campus and also support students that were negatively impacted by whatever the action was,” she said.
This fall, the college launched an online diversity training seminar for all incoming students, and the college will continue to promote discussions and seek student feedback.
Hicks said while she hopes there won’t be another offensive Halloween incident this year, she wouldn’t be surprised if there was.
“It's not something that we would like to expect, but its something you prepare for,” she said, adding that these incidents can be “very scary” for students.
Other South Carolina universities have faced backlash for racially insensitive incidents.
In 2016, Clemson University students protested for more diversity after rotting bananas were hung on an African American history banner on campus. Two years earlier, a Clemson fraternity held a “Cripmas” party where white members dressed up like stereotypical 1980s black gang members.
The Citadel and the University of South Carolina have also faced criticism after students wearing offensive costumes or clothing surfaced in old yearbooks or student magazines.