As Halloween rolls around, Ohio University students are scrambling to put together clever costumes in hopes of catching their classmates’ eyes during witching hour. While some students throw caution to the wind in anticipation of a night of drunken revelry in comical attire, Students Teaching About Racism in Society (STARS) is keeping a careful lookout for potentially offensive costumes.
STARS was founded in 1988 as START, an OU class taught by Dr. Sheila Williams, according to its website. Eventually, the class morphed into a student organization dedicated to “facilitat(ing) discussion about diversity and all isms…with a focus on racial issues.”
Keith Hawkins, president of STARS, said that the mission statement is accomplished through a number of racism awareness-themed events throughout the year.
“We do a lot of different events. All of them are generally geared around trying to raise awareness in some way,” Hawkins said.
In the past, events hosted by STARS have ranged from diversity activities with residence halls to a speech by an ex-Ku Klux Klan member about his experiences in the hate group. STARS’s best-known contribution to student life, however, is the “We’re a Culture, Not a Costume” poster campaign it unveils each October. Intended to facilitate conversation about racism during Halloween, the posters attracted a storm of national attention when they were first introduced last year.
“A lot of schools wanted to reprint the posters to start conversations on their own campuses,” Hawkins said. “And the firestorm it started online, in chat rooms and stuff, was quite big.”
Taylor See, vice Ppesident of STARS, explained that requests came in from schools in both the United States and other countries ranging from Canada to the U.K. Equally impressive was the response elicited from Internet chat rooms and message boards: shortly after the national media picked up on the poster campaign, “We’re a Culture, Not a Costume” became an Internet phenomenon. Hundreds of Internet users created Photoshop parodies that add an ironic twist to the posters, sometimes poking fun at the campaign.
“I kind of just take it in good humor,” Hawkins said. “I don’t really think it detracts from the message. Somebody once told me, if somebody makes a meme out of something you’ve done, then you’re probably doing it right.”
See said she approves of the parodies only if those creating and viewing them understand STARS’s message.
“I think if you understand the message… then by all means, go ahead and make memes. I know that you get it and it’s okay to laugh because there’s a mutual understanding there,” See said. “But when I see memes that degrade and mock our perspective… it’s just not funny. That says to me that you don’t understand.”
The attention has certainly been good for See as a graphic designer. See was responsible for designing the posters that have now been seen by over 16.3 million people, giving her a notability that helped her secure her current job creating advertisements for the University’s Department of External Relations.
“It’s the first thing on my resume, and it’s the reason why I got my job I have now,” See said.
As the STARS poster campaign enters its second year, it is bringing with it a whole new batch of posters to accompany those from last year. The new posters have adapted a number of changes from last year’s, including a new tagline: “You wear the costume for one night. I wear the stigma for life.”
Hawkins said these changes were made to make the posters more straightforward and provocative, in hopes of addressing some of the criticism they attracted last year.
“The idea about changing the subhead was to make it a little bit more impactful, to show the point and get it across a little more straightforward,” Hawkins said. “And the images were chosen to be a bit more provocative this year for the same reason, to get people thinking.”
Another new addition to the lineup is a poster addressing white Appalachian culture, which Hawkins said has already sparked a good deal of conversation.
“A lot of people didn’t understand why we added the Appalachian model, and a lot of the comments we got were, ‘This is a racism campaign, why are you adding quote-unquote ‘white people’ in there?’,” Hawkins said. “They don’t understand that Athens sits in Appalachia, and Athens County is one of the poorest counties in the state of Ohio. A lot of people aren’t able to contextualize that, and that’s a part of what this campaign is about.”
It remains to be seen whether these changes will make STARS’s message more effective. Hawkins believes the organization is on the right track. Not only did the poster campaign start a conversation on a national level last year, it also fulfilled its goal in bringing a discussion about racism to our local campus.
“It definitely made a difference. It started a national conversation,” Hawkins said. “But more importantly, it started a conversation on campus about what’s important and what’s not.”
Whether or not the posters will have the same kind of national impact this year, See is confident in STARS’s ability to play the crucial role of educating students about racism during Halloween—a time when racist ideas can so easily creep onto campus in the form of costumes.
“Halloween is the one day of the year where anyone is able to do what they want and say what they want and have no backlash for it,” See said. “This is a very significant way that these negative archetypes and ideas get spread because it’s so subtle, and I think it’s those subtle manifestations that have the largest effect on a sociological level.”