The CBC recently posted an article titled Queen's University investigates 'shockingly racist' student costume party wherein the university's Alma Mater Society described party-goers costumes as "inappropriate" and were decried by Toronto comedian Celeste Yim as "shockingly racist." This article brings to mind another decade-old costume related news bite prompted by Prince Harry's choice to wear a swastika armband to a friend's fancy dress party. It's generally accepted that the prince's costume was actually offensive and inappropriate but are the costumes worn, presumably by Queen's students, truly "shockingly racist?"
According to the CBC, the university has stated that it will take otherwise unspecified "appropriate action" if it is determined that the event was sponsored or sanctioned by the university. It can be safely assumed however, that there will be no punitive measures taken should the event be found to be independent of the university.
According to Yim, the costumes "are indisputably and unequivocally offensive, tasteless, and should not be tolerated. Context and intentions have no bearing." Tasteless is perhaps an applicable label however I must take issue with Yim's other statements. Since she has neglected to state why she believes the costumes to be offensive, we can only surmise it is because they represent stereotypes or that the wearer is from a different culture or race.
Declaring an idea or concept "off limits" is a hallmark of those who are not interested in discourse or wish to dissuade others from debating the merits of the issue at hand. Beginning a statement by labeling an issue as "indisputably and unequivocally offensive" is akin to playing white-noise to prevent conversation. Canada is a free society but it is only free because people have the ability to freely exchange ideas and opinions - even if one person disagrees with something they must be permitted the opportunity for discourse or at the very least, the option to weight-in as they like. Since Yim cannot be speaking for everyone it is likely that others do not share her views. One would expect that Yim, as a comic, can appreciate the importance of free speech and even perhaps the role that stereotypes play in our world. Certainly the latter is common cannon-fodder for comedians everywhere.
Stereotypes aside, it is not inaccurate to portray a Mexican at a party by wearing a sombrero. This is apparel that is easily identified with Mexican culture but it does not have any more negative connotations than dressing as a plaid-wearing, axe-toting Canadian lumberjack would. Clearly these should offend no-one and as tasteless as some of the costumes worn by the Queen's students might be they are not indisputably offensive. A costume influenced by a race or culture is not automatically racist: someone might dress as a geisha but this is a representation of an actual role in Japanese culture and not a racist remark.
Yim also implies that "context and intentions have no bearing." This is a false proclamation: context and intention are paramount in nearly every situation from social interaction to legal proceedings. Most adults will agree that there is a great difference between being insulted by someone accidentally or on purpose. Similarly, outcome in a court of law can differ greatly depending on intent as is often the case between findings of manslaughter or murder.
Finally, with respect to statements by Carolyn Thompson, the vice-president of the university's Alma Mater Society, that events such as these "undermine Queen's ability to provide a welcoming and respectful campus environment," one must ask whether any truly challenging or divisive topics are actually debated at Queen's University or if they have banned discourse in a vain attempt to avoid offending anyone at any time.