AUSTIN, TEXAS - “You don’t have bad intentions, but your social theme or costume idea could have a negative impact.”
That’s the opening line of a letter sent to fraternity and sorority members from the University of Texas’ Office of the Dean of Students.
The letter, which was issued ahead of Halloween weekend -- but remains on the website all year round -- offers members a checklist “to create better themes and costumes” that don’t “appropriate another culture or experience.”
What is “cultural appropriation,” you ask?
“Cultural appropriation is when somebody adopts aspects of a culture that is not their own,” the Dean of Students informed members.
The checklist includes points such as “How does this theme align with our organization’s values?” and “Is the theme or costume referring to a living culture or people?” The Dean of Students finishes the letter by listing “harmful themes and costumes” and “themes to consider.” “Harmful” costumes and themes include “South of the Border,” “Ghetto Fabulous” and “Trailer Trash,” while themes they deem worthy of consideration include “Comic Book Heroes and Villains,” “Catalina Yacht Mixer” and “Alphabet Theme.”
A representative with the Dean of Students said the letter is used as an educational tool. She said students planning costumes and themes may not think about the impact they will have on the community around them.
She said the “checklist” is not a list of “rules” or meant to restrict students’ freedom of expression. However, the fraternity or sorority’s national chapter does have a right to discipline students if they find it necessary to do so.
KVUE News also talked to a member of the UT Campus Climate Advisory Board, Emily Gitten. She said her group is designed to make sure that no one on campus is infringing upon the rights of any other culture or community.
“So this time of year is kind of tricky to be in that type of position, because Halloween with dressing up, a lot of people aren’t really aware what things are culturally appropriated and which ones are not,” said Gitten.
However, some members of the Greek community feel the list goes too far.
“If people cool it down a little bit, just go a little open minded and don’t take everything so personally, we wouldn’t even need a list like that. More people would have more fun and kind of stop take themselves too seriously, honestly,” said Bryan Ross, Member of Phi Delta Theta.
Meanwhile, other members find themselves somewhere in between, when it comes to this issue.
“I kind of have mixed feelings about it because in the end, it’s Halloween, and people are dressing up and being a character there not normally, but at the same time, I think people do need to think about that and be sensitive on the subject,” said Sydney Davis, Member of Phi Chi Theta.
Either way, the students said they believe the list is helping. A number of them said they've already attended Halloween parties Thursday night. They said they didn't see any costumes of racial caricatures so far, as they have in previous years.
“I’ve seen people dress up as Indians, not refer to them as Native Americans,” said Jessica Evans, UT student, “I’ve also seen people dress up as African Americans that are like White. I think the lists have maybe given people cultural awareness and told them not to dress like that and maybe that’s why I didn’t see a lot of it.”
Back in February of 2015, one UT frat hosted a party with the theme, "Border Control," where students wore sombreros with Hispanic names and ponchos. While multiple complaints were filed, the fraternity was not punished.
The UT spokesperson said the list is just a recommendation. As part of the UT's policy on freedom of expression, fraternities and sororities can technically hold parties with any costumes and themes of their choosing without facing any consequences from the university.
Take a look at the complete letter below: