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Queen’s U: Race-based costumes are always terrible - and damaging

Celeste Yim is a Toronto based writer and comedian

There is a long history – fraught with violence, fetishization, and commodification – of the mischaracterizing of non-white people. Mexicans are criminals, indigenous peoples are drunks. Asians wear rice hats.

These representations of culture, which poke fun at and vilify other races, also permit those marginalized to be mocked and treated with disrespect and disdain. Which is why, when I saw party photos on Facebook where teams of Queen's University students represented the "countries of the world" and drank themselves silly, I was seized with alarm and shame.

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All my senses felt on high alert, as though I were about to be assaulted. These were images out of nightmares for those who have experienced first-hand how racism looks, feels, and tastes.

There they were: faces behind every kind of cartoonish racial representation. The team representing Viet Cong soldiers grinning, brandishing arms, garnered comments of "Haha" and "Love" from their Facebook friends.

Facebook likes were, too, being awarded to Team Mexico, wearing sombreros and orange prison jumpsuits – you know, traditional Mexican apparel. I recognized many as my former teammates and opponents from high school. I looked at my old friends' faces, frozen with their half-opened drunken eyes and insidious grins.

The next day, I tweeted the photos. The responses to my tweets were immediate and visceral, one after another, many of shock – from friends of many backgrounds. We all wondered how any thinking person could engage in such inappropriate, deplorable acts. But here's what surprised me: Just as many responses were critical, attacking me for reposting the photos, calling me overly sensitive or too politically correct for recirculating photos that were already public.

I have always been treated differently for being Korean: my grade school peers made "ching chong" noises at me, my professor called me "oriental", and people are still unapologetically dressing up as Asian cartoons wearing rice hats. Why and how could the sting I felt from those party photos possibly be understood as anything but an effect of racism? I myself needed help understanding the debate.

I asked University of Toronto media professor, former Globe and Mail journalist and white male Michael Valpy to help me understand the perspective. He offered: "It's simple. In Canadian society, white is normal. It is the baseline of being human. Everyone else is turned into caricatures and props; they are exaggerated and objectified in ways which preclude them from the feeling that they themselves are human."

White people live in a world in which they are the only ones protected against intolerance – and yet, some deem themselves the authority on what is racist, and what is not. It is this history of privilege, from long before my tweets, which make the carelessness of that party so upsetting. This is the context which distinguishes wearing dreadlocks from lederhosen – one symbolizes oppression and the other dominance.

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The photos from the party do not represent a harmless social event. They represent the power that the majority has (and has always had) to decide how non-white people are represented, which greatly affects how it is they are treated.

The racist implications of inappropriate costumes are not a matter of opinion. It doesn't matter the intention, a lapse in judgment, or if everyone has one black friend, a Muslim friend, and an Asian friend too. These things have no bearing on what racist photos represent.

When racism is overlooked and implicitly tolerated, it is a complicit act in perpetuating it. It is a fact that history has been built on a dismal record of oppression.

In a world where Donald Trump - who has characterized many marginalized groups with one big, terrible stereotype or another - holds the most powerful office on earth, the need to overcome every form of racism, no matter how veiled, is essential. If we do not stand up with a collective struggle against racism, we are all responsible for its spread.

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