Students at the University of Colorado at Boulder have been told this year that some standard costumes are now deemed “offensive” and are unacceptable. This includes costumes as cowboys, indians and anything involving a sombrero. Once again, I am concerned that these rules based on tolerance values are intruding into the speech rights of students and wrongly assumes that all such outfits are derogatory to a particular race or culture.
There is no explanation why dressing as a cowboy is now offensive. However, I also fail to see how the university can declare outfits as indians or including sombreros are now deemed to be offensive. Both are part of a shared history in this country. I have had kids who dressed as little indians for Halloween. My kids love the Indian culture and wanted to engage in harmless play acting.
Why not prohibit Viking outfits as offensive to those of Norse bloodlines or animal outfits as objectifying wild animals for sensitive environmentalists?
Also declared unacceptable are any outfits depicting “white trash” or “over-sexualized” outfits like dressing as a geisha. There remains a part of university faculties and student bodies who insist on shaping conduct and choices of students according to their notion of ideal behavior. It becomes a slippery slope as any objection from any student or professor is deemed sufficient to show it is indeed offensive. The student code includes this provision:
Abusive Conduct. Unwelcome conduct by an individual(s) that is sufficiently severe or pervasive that it alters the conditions of education or employment and creates an environment that a reasonable person would find intimidating, hostile or offensive. The determination of whether an environment is “hostile” must be based on all of the circumstances. These circumstances could include the frequency of the conduct, its severity, and whether it is threatening or humiliating. Simple teasing, offhand comments and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious) will not amount to abusive conduct.
If someone now holds a Cowboy and Indian themed Halloween party, would’t it be viewed as offensive to a reasonable person in light of the university warning? After all, the code lists a premeditated act as an aggravator for discipline:
“Aggravating Factor. Any circumstances accompanying the commission of misconduct that adds to its seriousness. Examples may include the use of violence or force, violation of a trust or duty, premeditation of an incident, the existence of a previous conduct violation, and elements of hate and bias.”
My point is that there is a value to allowing people to express themselves and to accept that we live in a society of different views and values. The alternative is the slippery slope displayed in Colorado as we add more and more things deemed offensive until we are left with princess outfits (subject to objections that they foster female stereotypes) and ghost outfits (subject to those who view it as an insult to religious sensibilities).
Christina Gonzales, the dean of students, is not saying that students will be charged with improper conduct. However, if the school deems such outfits to be offensive, it is hard to see how the students are expected to know where the line is drawn.
I understand her warning that “Making the choice to dress up as someone from another culture, either with the intention of being humorous or without the intention of being disrespectful, can lead to inaccurate and hurtful portrayals of other people’s cultures.” Here is the original letter which raises valid points for students to consider.
I can understand the warning but the scope of what is deemed offensive is troubling in my view. While this letter does not suggest disciplinary action, my concern is the direction of such standards given the equally broad standards for disciplinary action for hostile, disrespectful, or insensitive speech on some campuses.
The warning includes “negative representations of cultures as being associated with poverty (“ghetto” or “white trash/hillbilly”), crime or sex work” is not acceptable. One spokesman said cowboy costumes are one such example that constitutes a “crude stereotype.” It reflects the same concern that I have previously addressed in the loss of free speech rights in the name of tolerance and pluralism.
The objections to all Native American costumes appear to have reached retailers. One leading costume site adds the following statement to its costumes:
I understand that many may disagree with my concerns on this story and, again, I understand that the university is trying to encourage more respectful outfits on campus. I agree with that warning. However, if outfits like Indians and cowboys are considered offensive, should they be subject to the enforcement of the student code for offensive conduct?