Queen’s university student party costumes: Racism, ignorance or both?

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Education is key!

By Sabrina Almeida

A certain Queen’s university student party made headlines this week for its “inappropriate” costumes. Offending photographs of students (most of them white) dressed as sheiks, Viet Cong guerrillas and Buddhist monks circulating on social media caught the attention of Toronto comedian Celeste Yim, who raised the issue. University officials quickly denounced the act and resolved to initiate dialogue about “race and racism” on campus.
In my opinion, a class or seminar on different cultures might be more appropriate. As to whether these students were racist or just ignorant is the big question.

I would like to give them the benefit of the doubt.

As per news reports, the party theme was countries of the world and groups of five were allotted a region to represent. Lack of knowledge about the dress and culture of the country they were assigned could have prompted them to resort to the objectionable stereotypes.

I asked a few adults, of colour, what garb they might adorn in similar circumstances. The answers didn’t surprise me. Rice hats, sombreros and the Keffiyeh (the traditional head scarf worn by Arab males) were typical choices. Having been to a few parties with this theme, the photographs would tell a similar story. Are these adults racist too? I think not!

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Almost every Indian expat in the Middle-East has a photograph of himself in what he deems to be the traditional garb of the sheikh—the white gown and a black or checkered Keffiyeh. Very often this photograph will be prominently displayed in his home in India. No disrespect is intended. In fact it is a form of flattery!

Any Mexican tourist invests in a sombrero to mark a visit to that country. He or she might even bring back a few for friends and relatives. Granted that’s not what Mexicans wear today but when asked to dress up, what would you choose?

Are Mexicans offended by our choice of the hat? I don’t know.

Would a white person wearing a sari or dhoti to represent India offend me?

Only when done for the wrong reasons—like when politicians use it as a form of appeasement to score brownie points with the community.

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I asked Google for help with clothing from different countries and what came up might have gotten me in trouble too!

Perhaps the main issue here is the colour of the students that wore these costumes. After all we’re quick to assume that all white people must be racist.

Having lived in North America for close to two decades and fielded many seemingly “racist questions”, I have come to realize that majority of them stemmed from ignorance and a lack of exposure to different cultures. We may adopt the multicultural stance in Canada but a few festivals don’t cut it. The exposure and education must begin at the school level.

While residents of Toronto, Mississauga, Brampton and other racially-diverse cities may experience some diversity, small towns remain largely untouched. Several friends from Burlington have remarked about its absense of diversity in the past and the consequent lack of knowledge about different cultures (and tolerance) even among their own children.

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Schools therefore must make it a point to include aspects of multiculturalism in their curriculum, events and celebrations. My son’s second grade teacher (in Massachusetts) would always host multicultural day where students and their parents were encouraged to showcase their home country’s cuisine and clothing. It felt odd in the virtually all-white school, now I understand the purpose behind it.

Including world history at the elementary level and in more than one grade might also broaden student’s perspective and attitude about cultures outside of North America and Europe.

Politicians wearing ethnic dresses for celebrations like Diwali hardly make an impact on Canadians who do not belong to that community except perhaps to see it as pandering. In fact it might infuriate and even nudge them to lean the other way.

It’s not only time to rethink our multiculturalism strategy but also to refrain from painting every comment and situation in racial overtones until we have solid proof. And even then education is key! – CINEWS

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