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Student campaign combats Halloween costume stereotypes

An Ohio University student group dedicated to informing its peers and the Athens community about the dangers of racism has developed the 2013 posters for its annual Halloween costume campaign.

For the third year in a row, Students Teaching About Racism in Society (STARS) has taken on the task of addressing harmful racial stereotypes depicted in Halloween costumes.

The "We're a Culture, Not a Costume" campaign made national headlines and garnered various awards when it debuted in 2011, each poster then bearing the slogan "This is not who I am, and this is not okay."

The campaign's main purpose is to address the construction of ethnic and racial identities and the biases and stereotypes that oftentimes accompany them in society, said Stephanie Sanders, assistant director of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion. The poster campaign helps to propel conversation about the ways that these assumptions are hurtful toward minority groups.

Dangerous stereotypes often manifest themselves in the Halloween costumes of students who do not belong to the groups that their outfits depict.

"I really do believe that some students do it because they think it's funny, without understanding the deep racial implications and what it means toward these groups," said Winsome Chunnu-Brayda, associate director of the Multicultural Center.

It's important to help students realize that the same reasons they wouldn't wear blackface or don costumes that perpetuate Asian or Mexican cultural assumptions during any other night of the year exist on Halloween as well, Chunnu-Brayda added.

The most recent batch of posters are emblazoned with images of the hurtful depiction of African Americans, Latinos, Asians and Indians, as well as the slogan, "When this is how the world sees you, it's not funny."

The impetus for the campaign came when members of the group began noticing really insensitive and racist costumes on campus and wanted to do something about it, STARS president Alexis Evans said.

The goal is to ignite a conversation and foster a dialogue from the standpoint of teaching and informing, not to call people out.

Although the campaign has caught national attention, including that of CNN, the target audience is still Ohio University and the surrounding area. In 2012, the group generated a poster that drew attention to the Appalachian stereotype, in order to remain "current, meaningful and powerful."

"Higher education is so unlike any other institution in that in the classroom you have the opportunity to interact, to come face-to-face with people, to discuss and critically think about [ethnicities and identity markers as they relate to human beings]," Sanders said.

In a time when Ohio University is striving to become more diverse, society deals with a more covert racism than the in-your-face type from the Civil Rights Era, Evans said. For that reason, race issues are subtler, and some people are ignorant of the offensive nature of a racially charged Halloween costume.

"Whenever we see issues of inequality, injustice or just very overt racism, we feel a need to call attention to it because that's the premise of our organization," Evans added.