Photo Credit: Kristina Tamasauskaite via Unsplash

Volunteer Contributor – Jermaine Marshall 

 

For many Brock students, Halloween signifies a month of ghouls, ghosts and sugar high candied fun for all involved in the countless parties, pub crawls and costumed revelry of the season.

 

However, as a queer, Black Jamaican man living in a country that is not my own, Halloween often looms before me as 31 days of anxiety, stress and danger as the spectres of racism and queerphobia cast distinct, unsettling shadows over the festivities.

 

Growing up in Jamaica, Halloween was not the nationwide affair of trick or treating and costume making that most Canadian children grow up associating the season with. While there was a surplus of candy, horror-based television and more than a few themed parties, the month of October largely passed by unremarkably in my neighbourhood, with not a pumpkin or haunted house in sight.

 

Most of what I knew about Halloween in Canada was based on North American television shows in which characters seemed to collectively agree that this holiday season was second only to Christmas (and for some arguably so).

 

As such in 2017, when I received my acceptance letter to study at Brock University, one of the cultural experiences I was most looking forward to was a St. Catharines Halloween of adventure and fun with the new friends I was hoping to have made by October.

 

Less than 24 hours after excitedly announcing my acceptance to Brock to my family, I was standing open mouthed staring at my laptop screen. In my excitement I’d googled “Halloween”, “Brock University”, and “Parties” and had been stunned to see a headline article from 2014 covering an incident of blackface at a student union party at Isaac’s Bar and Grill. Students had not only dressed up as a Jamaican bobsledding team, but they had been rewarded for their actions by winning first place in the nights costume contest run by the student union at the time.

 

This was one of my first encounters with Halloween racism and, given my intentions to study abroad, I was certain it wouldn’t be my last.

 

As international students we are frequently warned about “culture shock”. How unsettling and disorienting it can be living in new unfamiliar cultural environments with different attitudes, customs, traditions and beliefs. However, what happens when the shocking cultural environment isn’t just Canadians saying “pop” instead of “soda,” but rather a whole societal and cultural atmosphere of casual and systematic racism, queerphobia and prejudice woven into one of the nations most celebrated holidays?

 

Like myself, many of the thousands of Brock international students are often taken off-guard by the pervasive racism of Canadian Halloween. Seeing their cultural heritage and identities donned as costumes, as well as walking by store aisles where caricatures and harmful racial, gender and sexual stereotypes are put on display as “must buy” outfits for kids, teens and adults.

 

Moreover, having spent most of September and O-Week attempting to make fresh social bonds, international students are often unprepared for the deeply unpleasant shock of seeing new acquaintances engaging in cultural appropriative practices at clubs, bars and house parties’ mere weeks into the term.

 

It is in these moments that we are then faced with the familiar lose-lose options of whether to say something or suffer in silence. With the former we risk not only having to spend hours trying to explain why specific costumes are offensive, but also being labelled “kill-joys” and jeopardizing what little social connections we currently have on campus. For international students who may already be battling feelings of isolation, homesickness and encroaching seasonal affective disorder (SAD) as the weather changes, this option might seem unthinkable. Alternatively, we can choose to say nothing, remaining in a troubled silence as we watch our colleagues disrespect a range of cultural, racial and sexual identities that are our own and those of others.

 

As a university that prides itself on “diversity and inclusion,” there is a duty and obligation to create an environment that facilitates safe, culturally sensitive social and academic experiences for the thousands of international students that attend Brock.

 

In speaking with the Brock Human Rights and Equity (HRE) Director Leela Madhavarau, I was encouraged to hear about the plethora of steps the HRE, along with the Student Justice Centre (SJC) and the Brock Undergraduate Student Union (BUSU), had each taken in recent years to address this Halloween issue.

 

Steps which included a “Halloween Costume Vetting Protocol” for on-campus events, as well as numerous educational workshops, training and ad campaigns geared at informing the student body and holding them accountable for their costume choices.

 

While these initiatives are undoubtedly important in helping to prevent offensive costumes and Halloween practices on campus, I find it just as important to call on Brock students and staff to exercise mindfulness, cultural sensitivity and anti-discriminatory practices at their own private, community-based Halloween events, on their social media accounts and in their interpersonal interactions. Moreover, this dedication to addressing racism, queerphobia, ableism and discrimination should be a year-round endeavor for everyone, as opposed to just being Halloween focused.

 

It is vital that we all utilize the resources at our disposal, such as the free intercultural, anti-racism and anti-discrimination workshops and certifications offered at Brock, to improve our capacity to not only avoid perpetuating racist and discriminatory practices but to also call out those practices in our friends and families when and where we see it. In doing so, we contribute to creating a truly inclusive and anti-discrimination focused campus and local community that can support an increasingly diverse global student body.