Remember the “Pocahotness” frat party email back in December of 2011? I do. Not because I received it while a student at Duke, but because I saw Nicole Daniels’s Chronicle editorial, replete with the predictable slew of inflammatory comments, the next day. The party in question, she explains, was held by the Pi Kappa Phi fraternity; its theme, which Daniels’s friend “nonchalantly texted her,” was “Pilgrims and Indians.” Daniels goes on to say how she found the theme appalling in its racial insensitivity but decided to go nonetheless, in order to evaluate the event herself. She places herself among her peers, astonished at their willing participation in the theme. She closes with a collective moral indictment: “Everyone who attended this party should feel ashamed. We are students at a prestigious university, and we should know better.”
It’s roughly Halloween as I write this, which made me mis-remember the piece, and the party, as a Halloween event. It was not. It was a pre-Thanksgiving shindig, “intended to celebrate Thanksgiving,” as the Pi Kappa Phi apology letter stated. While I’m not someone who moved through Duke tending to conceive of holidays like Thanksgiving as cause for a rager, I acknowledge that there are, plausibly, student groups that did. And I don’t have a moral indictment for that urge, so long as that urge is pursued conscientiously—and, in the case of this party, I believe it was not. The fraternity’s response letter said as much. The letter is actually remarkable in its defenselessness; the brothers acknowledge that the party offended, and they apologize for that offense. They even went a step further, organizing an event called “Culture Clash,” co-hosted by Pi Kapp and the Native American Student Association. I didn’t attend, but I’m curious about how that went.
I’m curious, especially in these days surrounding and following Halloween, about how we behave on days surrounding and following holidays like Halloween and Thanksgiving. There are obvious performative differences between the two: one is a one-off involving costumes, transforming into someone else—or at least the outward appearance of someone else—for a night; the other brings friends and family together for gratitude and a shared meal. I say “performative” to call attention to our actions within the 24 hours (and then some) during which we’re called to celebrate. History is complicated; sustaining meaningful dialogue about the ethics of holiday behavior during said holiday (or party) gets in the way of action, especially action involving costume and debauchery. Thus, perhaps, our tendency to do stupid things like throw a party with a racist (or sexist, classist, heterosexist, etc.) theme. Talking about the big stuff is hard. Why not just barely dip into it, with a hastily thrown-together costume, in the name of fun?
There are so many articles and essays that treat the question of “Appropriate? Or Appropriation?” (I’m borrowing this phrasing from an upcoming event hosted by Team Kenan and the Forum for Scholars and Publics). One I read recently is from the Walker Art Center’s teen-oriented blog. On dress-up holidays like Halloween, Mason Santos writes, “we get caught up in our own freedom, which unfortunately creates the belief that we are entitled to do what we want…‘I can wear what I want,’ and, ‘I can choose to represent another culture the way I want’ are often phrases that come up when a person is trying to defend their choice of wearing an offensive costume. Rather than thinking about another person’s right to feeling comfortable in their community, we think about our own right to do what we desire.”
Following this line, holidays like Halloween suddenly seem less communal and more liminal. We walk around as half-selves, Picasso-painting-faced, one limb invoking ‘normal’ us, the other invoking Andy Warhol, or a zombie, or Nicki Minaj, or “Pocahotness.” Halloween makes people gravitate together, creating an implausible collection of characters, real and imagined, from different time periods, social spaces, and communities. The oddity of this shared space becomes a given, which makes it difficult to interrogate why we do it in the first place—and thus even more difficult to interrogate the perceived ease of opting into others’ realities via a one-night costume.
In this way I appreciate the “Culture Clash” event, even if I didn’t go, and I appreciate the upcoming “Appropriate? Or Appropriation?” fashion show and panel. I appreciate, primarily, that these events exist, and that they exist in order to give space to party participants—like me, like you—to appear, sans-costumery, and think about the fictions we adopt on a daily basis. I appreciate that these events exist to propose that these fictions, while sustainable for some, are not sustainable, but rather demeaning and detrimental, for others. I appreciate that this is uncomfortable, even scary, to reckon with. ‘Tis the season for Halloween horror, right?