LUSU Councillor Elleni Harpa offers her thoughts on Sugarhouse’s “Day of the Dead” Halloween event on Saturday.
On Thursday, LUSU President Will Hedley released a statement regarding the perceived hypocritical nature of simultaneously running a campaign against Halloween costumes which appropriate cultures, mental illnesses, gender identities and other minority groups, and having the Sugarhouse hold a so-called Day of the Dead party on Halloween night. In his blog, Hedley states that “this is a complex area and maybe there are no definitive right and wrong answers, but it’s my belief that we’re talking about two different things here.” He goes on to explain that he believes this event to be cultural appreciation, not appropriation (the distinction being that one stems from the desire to celebrate and learn about a culture in a respectful way, and one takes certain – often stereotypical – aspects of a minority culture and adopts them as a fashion statement or similar.) I fundamentally disagree that there are no definitive answers, and I know that others within LUSU hold the same view.
If an event has the potential to upset or offend students, it simply should not go ahead. As Jenni Dybell, CCO: Welfare puts it, “as a union I feel as though we should be supporting minority students and cultures, whether or not it interrupts ‘fun’ or makes some people think we’re too politically correct.” Hedley stated at LUSU Council this week that the issue of cultural appropriation was raised too late for the event to be changed or removed, as many students had already invested in it and would be disappointed. However, surely if the disappointment of these students – who would easily find somewhere else to go and party in Lancaster on Halloween – is weighed against the potential to seriously upset and even alienate students who may already feel misrepresented in popular culture, I feel there is a clear priority, and that is to protect the students we are supposed to represent.
The FTOs also stated in LUSU Council that as the event is held on one of the days of the traditional Day of the Dead celebrations, it is therefore innately appreciation and not appropriation. This argument is flawed, especially considering the event is being marketed as a Halloween party and is clearly happening on the 31st for that reason alone. This feels like a very flimsy attempt to backpedal on something that those higher up in LUSU have now realised is problematic, but don’t want to bail on because of worries about being seen as “the fun police”. The Day of the Dead event is apparently driven by NUS promotions and other SUs will be holding similar parties but again, this does not mean that LUSU should simply jump on the bandwagon. If anything, LUSU should be questioning the NUS and holding them to account, and representing the student members who may be negatively affected by this event. Council members were informed that there was to be educational information about the Day of the Dead celebration – it is now two days before the event and I for one have not seen anything but publicity for the event itself.
Another consideration is that while the event itself may not be appropriative (although I believe it is), there is no way of making sure that students don’t take it as an opportunity to dress or behave in ways that constitute cultural appropriation. As Cian Jarvis, a member of Pendle JCR and a fellow LUSU Councillor, states: “just because Sugar’s decorations are sincere, doesn’t mean that they’re not providing a platform for tasteless appropriation.” Pendle encountered this issue at last year’s Extrav, which was Wild West themed. While the JCR were aware of the potential for cultural appropriation, and therefore pushed the Wild West theme rather than ‘Cowboys and Indians’ or anything relating to Native American culture, Cian says that “people attended in cultural appropriating costumes and there was nothing we could do. I can see the same thing happening at the Day of the Dead event.”
LUSU has a duty to represent, respect, and protect its student members. While future events have apparently been pulled from the Sugarhouse calendar, and efforts are allegedly being made to educate LUSU staff and officers, LUSU should never have agreed to hold this event in the first place. I understand that not everyone is aware of the problems around cultural appropriation, and this highlights the need for better education, but this event is clearly problematic and could even be damaging. As soon as the issue was raised, measures (better than a campaign which should have run regardless of the Sugarhouse event) should have been taken. It is never “too late” to protect vulnerable students. It is our responsibility as a Students’ Union and it should be taken more seriously.
Update (30/10/2015): We have been asked to point out that both Katie Capstick and Anna Lee were not present at LUSU Council this week, and therefore were not party to the FTO statement outlined in the article above. We are happy to clarify this.