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  • Julian Reynoso

Several departments at Canisius College hosted ‘Culture is Not a Costume’ Workshop

Dr. Shyam Sriram, associate professor in the political science department, and Bennie D. Williams, director of the ALANA center, presented the Culture is Not a Costume Workshop moderated by senior student, Mylan Hawkins, in the Regis Room on Wednesday.

The workshop began with Williams briefly talking about the Jesuit values, Cura Personalis, Magis and People for and with Others, and how we apply them to inclusion and equity. He made it a conversation between him and the students, questioning them and asking them how they believed that these values applied to inclusion and equity. After his introduction, he passed it over to Dr. Sriram so that he could focus on the main topic of the workshop.

Dr. Sriram began by saying, “The reason that I bring this up now is because during Halloween, many people dress up in culturally insensitive costumes.” He then showed a disturbing photo from three weeks ago where a student at another school asked another to homecoming with a poster that had racist remarks towards African Americans, reading, “If I was black I would be picking cotton, so instead I’m picking you for homecoming.” He then mentioned how he had seen this exact proposal five times before, explaining how this is not a new occurrence and that everybody needs to be more aware about this kind of behavior.

After showing this photo and setting the tone for the rest of the workshop, Dr. Sriram explained the difference between diversity and inclusion. He displayed a slide clarifying the distinction between “diversity,” “inclusion” and “equity.” Diversity was explained as bringing other people in for the sake of having them present. Inclusion was defined as involving other people to show off that they have a voice — typically to avoid accusations. Equity was described as giving everyone equal opportunities so that everyone has a chance to share their voice, and said that this is what Canisius should strive for.

After this, Dr. Sriram moved into showing costumes that were engaging in cultural appropriation such as celebrities wearing outfits that mock specific cultures, whether it was incidental or not, and costumes that were specifically worn for the purpose of mocking a culture. He talked about how often these were innocently worn for fun during Halloween, and explained that the problem with doing that regardless of intention is that it normalizes this behavior in society that dilutes cultures and their customs. Dr. Sriram also showed how often cultures are appropriated through “sexy” Halloween costumes and said, “If you’re searching for a costume and it has the word ‘sexy’ in the name before a word referring to any culture, then it is probably cultural appropriation.”

The last section of Dr. Sriram’s presentation during the workshop was about the history of the act of blackface, and how it was an early form of cultural appropriation in America that still has an effect today. He showed some photos that ranged from the late 19th century to current day of white people in America engaging in blackface, explaining the problem that persists to this day.

Dr. Sriram said that the main reason he continues to do Culture is Not a Costume workshops is because he believes that it is important to teach college students so that those who are affected by this can be seen. He proposed the idea of trying to get this information taught to FYE classes in the future. He said, “I want to be known as the professor who asks the hard questions.”

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