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Globe and Mail columnist Gary Mason.
Globe and Mail columnist Gary Mason.

Gary Mason

Queen’s controversy: Sometimes a monk costume is just a monk costume Add to ...

Last spring, a couple of female students at Bowdoin College in Maine decided to hold a tequila-themed birthday party for a fellow classmate. Those who showed up were offered tiny, miniature sombreros to wear.

Soon, pictures were being taken and posted on Facebook. And then very quickly all hell broke loose.

Some students saw the photos and were outraged. The mostly white party-goers were accused of “cultural appropriation” and “perpetuating a racial stereotype.” The student government issued a statement saying the college administration should create a “safe place” for students “injured or affected” by the incident.

The party, and the reaction to it, reignited the debate about political correctness run amok on U.S. college campuses.

I mention this because we now have a similar affair on our hands here in Canada. A group of students at Queen’s University is the target of vitriolic attacks for attending an off-campus costume party at which the theme was “Countries of the World.” Among other things, the mostly white participants dressed up as Buddhist monks, Middle Eastern sheiks, Viet Cong fighters and Rastafarians.

Toronto comedian Celeste Yim came across pictures from the event and was immediately incensed, branding the behaviour of the students “shockingly racist” “offensive” and “tasteless.” Things went crazy from there. Predictably, the Queen’s administration quickly condemned the party, and said it was investigating.

To which I ask: Investigating what?

When did going to a costume party become a racist activity? I’ve attended many in my life, certainly lots in my twenties, where people of varied ethnic backgrounds (and sometimes not) dressed up in all sorts of crazy ways, depicting people of all racial makeups. A friend who is black once donned Lederhosen for an Oktoberfest bash. Today that would be cultural theft, I suppose.

Should I have felt wronged when a neighbour of Chinese descent showed up for a Halloween party dressed as a “Canadian hoser,” replete with red plaid over-shirt, tuque, and a couple of missing front teeth? I doubt there was a soul in the house thinking, “Way to perpetuate a negative stereotype.”

I understand that lines can be crossed; jokes, sometimes in the form of costumes, fall flat or are just plain offensive. At the same time, I think we need to be extremely careful about making a distinct connection between what we witnessed at Queen’s – or Bowdoin College before it – and overt racism.

I know there are well-meaning folks who are offended by what took place and want to focus on what the students did rather than on what it may “make them” as people. But in the world in which we live, it is not that simple. Today, some 20-year-olds who thought it might be fun to dress up as someone from a different country for a costume party are being branded as bigots – or worse.

There is this metaphorical line being drawn between these types of gatherings and groups like the alt-righters in the U.S. Costume parties like the one at Queen’s are the thin edge of the wedge, the slippery slope, and all that. Well, I think that is ridiculous and horribly unfortunate for the students involved.

Their pictures are blasted all over the world now, and are being associated with some fairly serious allegations. And most of the people making them know absolutely nothing about these kids; they see a picture of a group of young women wearing brightly coloured Rastafarian tames that fronts a story about entitled, white students acting like racist, insensitive boors and shake their head.

Well, I could shake mine too.

This is the juncture where some of you shout: but you’re missing the point. These costumes offended people. To which I say: they offended some people. And you can find some people who are offended by just about anything.

Racism is a serious problem in our society, and there should be no place in it for people who hold, or propagate intolerant views of others based on their race. But we also need to be careful that we don’t undermine progress on this issue by citing examples of it that are an overreach and of such a tenuous nature they alarm people for an entirely different reason.

Sometimes a person dressed as a Buddhist monk at a costume party is just someone dressed up as a Buddhist monk at a costume party – and not a racist jerk.

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Follow on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

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