Earlier this semester, a University of Rhode Island student voiced concerns to the Dean of Students’ office and Panhellenic Council over several Halloween costumes she saw on her Instagram feed that she thought were racist.
Joellyn Pari, a human development major, saw two members of the Alpha Delta Pi sorority dressed up as Quavo and Travis Scott, two black rappers, on her Instagram feed.
The two wore grills, cornrowed their hair and had chains hanging from their necks. One of the girls, who was dressed as Quavo, even included the rapper’s tattoos. Quavo’s tattoo says “YRN” above his left eyebrow, which means “Young Rich N-word.”
Pari wondered how people of color would view these costumes and decided to take to Twitter to raise awareness, tweeting screenshots of the posts. Once Pari did this, others responded to her and shared other posts they saw that offended them.
“I don’t see it being wrong to dress up as somebody who’s a public figure, but I feel they overdid it,” said Pari. “They did [braids] just for the costume, and they did cornrows.”
The Good Five Cent Cigar reached out to the students who posted the photos but they could not be reached before the print deadline.
Alison Burke, assistant director of Greek Life, said that she had met with Pari and the students in the photo to discuss the matter. Burke said that the sorority members are allowed to exercise their First Amendment right to dress and express themselves however they want, but they should still reflect the values of Greek Life.
“After our meetings, we came to an amicable resolution that the ladies were directly emulating two public figures who are well known rap/hip-hop artists,” said Burke. “The Interfraternity and Panhellenic Council discussed with chapter leadership appropriate Halloween costumes that do not depict a race or culture throughout the month of October.”
Another Instagram post in question was of a Delta Zeta sorority member dressed as a homeless person with a cardboard sign reading, “Help me I’m poor and sobr.” The caption on this photo included her Venmo, with the location set at “The Dump.”
The Student Senate Cultural Chair, Lulu Alryati, also felt these posts went too far. What offended her the most was the fake tattoo on the Alpha Delta Pi member’s forehead.
“People think this is ‘funny’ and it’s ‘just a costume’ but at the end of the day, you’re offending people,” said Alryati. “For them to not understand someone else’s side but their own, to think they’re untouchable, that dressing up as a [homeless] person or rappers and having the n-word written across your forehead isn’t a big deal, that isn’t okay.”
Alryati said what bothered her the most about the costumes was that those who were dressed in them for a day may not fully understand the struggles that the demographics depicted by those costumes face daily.
“Instead of advocating for students of color and helping fight for important causes like mass incarceration or those being abused and/or killed by police officers, you’re dressing up for one day,” said Alryati.
Dean of Students Dan Graney ultimately decided that the costumes didn’t fall under the definition of harassment, so there was no conduct action taken.
As written in the University’s Student Handbook, harassment is defined as conduct that is so severe, pervasive and objectively offensive that it undermines and detracts from the victim’s educational experience.
“In my determination I think they came up to the line, but they didn’t cross it,” said Graney. “Down to the tattoo on [her] forehead– tasteless, but also not one they made up, they were copying the tattoo that he actually has. Again, not condoning it.”
Though Graney does understand why Pari was offended by the photos, he said he doesn’t consider it cultural appropriation because they were dressed as public figures.
“Had it gone into the realm of blackface or something like that, certainly that would have crossed that line,” said Graney.
Graney also shared the images with Kathy Collins, the vice president of Student Affairs, and George Gallien, the director of the Multicultural Student Services Center.
“We do not condone that type of behavior, I’m in line with the University on that,” said Gallien. “When issues like this arise, it’s an opportunity to have critical conversations around race and around things that make people feel uncomfortable.”
Graney said that this type of issue creates a challenge of balancing peoples’ right to exercise freedom of speech and expression with making the campus as inclusive as possible.
“Part of that is being educated and educating people about what does the right to free speech mean,” said Graney.
Graney said he wants this to be a learning experience for the students by incorporating diversity education into Greek 101 programs.
“I think whether it’s Greek affiliation or athletics or even other student organizations, you can always train more and learn more and provide more education,” said Graney.
Graney said that for others within the URI community who feel personally offended by the costumes, he does not condone them and understands why they would be upset.
“I’m more than happy to talk to anybody that feels [offended],” said Graney. “I think that having conversations about it is what will make it better.”