Campus Store pulls offensive costumes after community speaks out
The McMaster Campus Store came under criticism this week for controversial choices in costumes available for sale. The store offered Halloween costumes for the first time this year as part of its expanded merchandise.
But not all the costumes went over well with McMaster students.
The selection of costumes available included racially offensive offerings such as “Sexy Indian Princess” and “Eskimo Cutie,” both designed for women.
Photos of the costumes were published in executive editor Jemma Wolfe’s editorial on The Silhouette’s website on Oct. 25, in response to the offerings in the Campus Store and cultural appropriation during Halloween. The images were circulated online, bringing the attention to the wider McMaster community—and provoking a major outcry.
Donna Shapiro, Director of the Campus Store, explained that the organization had not anticipated such a response.
“We didn’t really even suspect this angle as we started down this road,” Shapiro said. “I guess it’s been a long time since I’ve been in a party store to look at what costumes are available.”
Upon hearing of the available costumes, fourth-year Psychology, Neuroscience and Behaviour student Alan Rheaume started a petition asking that the Campus Store immediately remove the costumes, calling them “obscene and offensive towards Indigenous students at McMaster and aborad [sic]” and arguing that they violated the MSU’s Anti-Oppression Policy.
“I started the petition…so we could end this offensive business practice that has no place in an institution of higher education,” said Rheaume, who is a member of the McMaster First Nations Students Association.
“My goal was not only to get the costumes removed from the bookstore, but also to spread awareness about the widespread cultural appropriation inherent in Halloween celebrations.”
Rheaume’s petition, started on change.com, was established hours after the photos surfaced on Friday, Oct. 25. He was seeking 500 signatures; by the time it closed later in the weekend, 543 people had signed.
The Campus Store pulled the racist costumes less than 24 hours after complaints were made, removing them from sale before the store opened on Saturday.
Even through the controversy of the selections, observers praised the store’s swift response.
“I was happy on that front…for the [Campus Store] listening and being willing to respond like that,” said MSU President David Campbell of the quick remedy.
While the removal of the costumes was a welcome response, the problems associated with the sale of the costumes still resonated in the Mac community.
“Inappropriate Halloween costumes are not specific to McMaster, however we are concerned when such costumes appear within our own campus community,” wrote the McMaster Indigenous Studies Program and Indigenous Services in a comment to The Silhouette.
“[This] has been an embarrassment to the entire McMaster community, and hopefully these events can spark a dialogue on critical thought and informed decision making.”
The release referred to a third costume that was also deemed offensive for its endorsement of rape culture. In addition to the racially insensitive costumes, the Campus Store sold a football-themed costume marketed to women with lettering on the shirt saying, “tackle me.”
“The issue of costumes at the McMaster Campus Store extends beyond the problematic representations of Indigenous peoples, and Indigenous women specifically, as there were other costumes that were also offensive to other groups that condoned rape culture.”
The costume in question was pulled in the afternoon on Oct. 26, shortly after the original two were removed from sale.
The store had pursued Halloween costumes as a way to boost sales in October.
“Things slow down in the course materials area [in October], so we have some transitional space,” explained Shapiro. “Halloween was just a good fit because it happened to fit the timeline.”
The idea to stock costumes came from Deidre Henne, McMaster’s Chief Financial Officer and Associate Vice-President (Administration), who worked with the Campus Store to help boost revenue. The store has faced declining profits in recent years from decreased textbook sales, seeing a drop of 10 to 20 per cent per year, but is still mandated to contribute its profits, usually roughly $1 million, to the Student Affairs and University Operating budgets.
“They would not have sold costumes…had I not suggested it,” said Henne, who described the decision to stock them as “an innocent one.”
As proposed by Henne, the Campus Store sought a partnership with Party City, a New Jersey-based retailer. The company traditionally establishes a bunch of “pop-up” stores across North America seasonally for events like Halloween, but used their deal with Mac as an opportunity to pilot selling stock in a campus setting.
Party City rented the space from the Campus Store, and stocked the same selection of costumes that is available in their regular locations.
“There was nothing in front of that for vetting their costumes,” said Shapiro.
Considering the reaction, Henne concluded, “on-campus screening is probably necessary.”
“Hindsight is 20/20,” she said. “I think by bringing [these costumes] onto campus, it put a different lens onto it. I think in fairness it’s a good lens to put on it, it’s just about what appropriate actions the Campus Store should take when those things are arranged.”
It remains to be seen whether the Campus Store will continue to sell costumes in future years.