Birmingham’s Cultural Dress Ban is Ridiculous. Stereotypes and Fancy Dress Go Hand-In-Hand

Birmingham University’s Guild of Students has banned students dressing as ‘racist’ characters such as Mexicans, Sacha Baron Cohen’s Dictator and the Native American from the Village People on their club nights.

You read that correctly. Someone was also not allowed in to Birmingham’s Fab night for painting their face black when dressing up as a bat.

This ban is part of the university Guild’s ‘zero tolerance on racism’ policy, which I think is a little extreme. Yes, there should be zero tolerance policy on racism. But this is not racism, not in the sense that it is harmful or disrespectful at least.

Where should this policy stop? We could all dress as ‘racial stereotypes’ all too easily. How many people have you seen (perhaps even you) dress up as a Frenchman/woman with a garlic clove necklace and a stripey top and beret? Or a French maid? How many people have you seen don lederhosen? How many have you seen dressed as Father Christmas or elves (clearly a stereotype against Laplanders)?

Almost every fancy dress shop you walk into will have an ‘Around the World’ section, where you will no doubt spot a Pocahontas outfit, a lederhosen outfit, and a ninja costume. Granted, every fancy dress shop has an exceedingly tarty selection, but I do not see many clubs quick to ban that (there have been universities in America that have, but that’s another story). It is part of fancy dress tradition to have these ‘global’ figures on the scene.

The whole point of fancy dress is to dress up as something recognisable. Otherwise, you might as well not dress up as anything at all. You need the stereotype, otherwise people will never guess who you are, and that would be boring. Vampires should apply fake blood and some teeth and create a pale face. Elves should have pointy shoes. Pocahontas should have plaits and a feather in her hair and a Mexican should have a sombrero. It’s not racist, but it is fun.

Take away the stereotype, take away the fun.

The trick is not to be offensive, and this is easy to do as long as you go as the typical characters: Disney, scary, Christmassy, and so on. People can dress up properly this way, transform themselves into something or someone else and have fun without causing offense.

I understand there are exceptions. Prince Harry’s Nazi costume was a low point, and the two girls from the University of Chester donning Twin Tower costumes were absolutely disgraceful. However, the difference with these costumes and those of Mexicans and Sacha Baron Cohen characters are that the former were highly offensive and the latter were not. To turn the former into fun is disrespectful.

How does a chirpy Mexican or a camp Native American elicit the same reaction however? They do not. I don’t know why Prince Harry and those two girls thought their costumes were ‘fun’. However, someone wearing a sombrero or pretending to be a classic childhood character (Cowboys and Indians, anyone?) is a completely different scenario – it reminds us of fun and happy times, not mournful ones that should have more respect.

The costumes banned by the guild are stereotypical, yes, but they are not racist. People do not wear these costumes to say ‘I hate Mexicans/Native Americans/etc.’ or even to pretend they represent all Mexicans/Native Americans/etc. We know most Mexicans don’t actually wear Sombreros. People who dress as a ‘Mexican’ dress as just that. It has almost become its own identity; a sombrero-wearing maraca-shaking ‘Mexican’ can only really be seen in cheesy restaurants and on Halloween. There is no dangerous or hurtful meaning behind them. It is an inoffensive, flamboyant and different way to dress, and that is that.

I agree with Birmingham student Jonathan Blausten, who wrote this open letter to the Guild stating how ridiculous and badly enforced their policy was. I especially liked it when he said: ‘The inconsistencies are ridiculous. It appears the Guild deem it OK to go dressed as a Guantanamo Bay prisoner but not as a fictional dictator or as a Mexican. It appears you’re not allowed to paint your face black as part of a bat costume, yet the song playing as I left the Guild last night was a certain Jay Z & Kanye West song set in Paris. Sort it out.’

Yes, fancy dress is highly stereotypical. Therefore you really do need to ban all fancy dress if you start banning Mexican fancy dress. Otherwise, you’re just being a bit daft and inconsistent, and ruining people’s harmless fun for no justifiable reason.

Emily Metcalf

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Photo: Lizbt Action (Flickr)

One Comment
  • Tamsin
    19 May 2015 at 17:43
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    I wonder if accurately cosplaying as a Mexican movie character would have been deemed as racist in this scenario…

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