Of Costume Parties and Cultural Appropriation
Queen’s University made national headlines last week, and not in the way that it would have preferred.
After comedienne Celeste Yim tweeted photos from her Twitter account – since deleted – of undergraduate students dressed up as stereotypical depictions of Viet Cong guerrillas, Arab Sheikhs, Buddhist monks and Sombrero-wearing, prison jumpsuit-clad Mexicans for a party held in the University District, a furor has been raised among Queen’s students and the media.
As students have taken to furiously debating the party on the “Overheard at Queen’s” Facebook page and spelling out their discontent on campus, the party was also widely covered by media outlets such as Buzzfeed, VICE News, Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail and the CBC. Media coverage has ranged from the hyperbolic – VICE’s “Queen’s University Students Held a Party and the Theme Was Racism” – to The Globe and Mail’s more tempered “Costume party highlights racism at Queen’s University, critics say,” reflecting both broader controversies over culturally-insensitive Halloween costumes at universities across North America (including a well-publicized incident at Yale University in 2015) and concerns from minority students about their treatment on a campus in which 71.5% of undergraduates come from a non-minority background.
While school administrators have issued statements decrying the party, they have hesitated from responding to calls to immediately punish the students involved, indicating that actions would only be taken after the results of their own investigation. In potentially sanctioning the students who attended the party, Queen’s University faces the first major test of its non-academic misconduct system (NAM), which was ratified in September 2016 to enforce Queen’s new Student Code of Conduct. Prior to 2015, the process of disciplining students for NAM had been historically peer-led, run by student-operated judicial boards in the Alma Mater Society and the Society for Graduate and Professional Students.
The Code of Conduct
Under the Student Code of Conduct, Queen’s has broad oversight over student behaviour both on- and off-campus. In clause 4 of the Preamble, students are explicitly told that they are expected to adhere to the University’s core values, including fostering “mutual respect for the dignity, property, rights and well-being of others. Section III of the Code, which details its scope, further indicates that that the University’s authority can extend to student conduct off University property which “has a real and substantial connection to the legitimate interests of the University”, including “its reputation or goodwill in the community.”
Clauses 4 and 5 of Section III also state that students can be held individually responsible for their actions; student groups and/or their leaders and identifiable spokespersons can also be held responsible “if the leaders gave encouragement or consent for the misconduct, or if they knew of, or could have reasonably foreseen, the misconduct and failed to take steps to discourage or prevent it.”
Non-academic misconduct is categorized into Category 1 and Category 2 in the new disciplinary system. While no clear delineation is made between the two categories, the Code generally holds that Category 2 is for more grievous offences. The NAM Intake Office, a new university office that receives and refers reports of student NAM, is responsible for determining the category of the case and / or determining whether it can go through a diversion process for an alternate means of resolution. If a case is not diverted, the report will go to a NAM Unit based on the type of misconduct; the Unit is responsible for adjudicating the case and making a decision if the student and Queen’s have not resolved the case informally “pursuant to an applicable procedure”.
Of the types of NAM listed in Section V of the Code, any claims stemming from this party will likely fall under part G (b), “Misconduct against Persons and Dangerous Activity”, which lists “Harassment or Discrimination” as grounds for NAM. Sanctions, listed under Section VI, can range from written reprimands to university/community service and fines and behavioural bonds; multiple sanctions can be applied against students if necessary. In the most serious cases, an authorized Queen’s administrator can issue a notice of prohibition from certain parts of campus or a requirement for the student to withdraw from the University entirely.
The Code’s Potential Impact
Given the very public outcry and the impact that the party has had on the “reputation and goodwill” of Queen’s University both within Kingston and across Canada, there is a strong chance that Queen’s administrators will take NAM action against either the party’s participants or its organizers upon the conclusion of its investigation.
However, many questions remain unanswered. It still remains unclear who organized the party; the Queen’s Commerce Society, which was initially alleged by some students to have been responsible due to their organization of similar costume parties, denied its involvement. The Kingston Whig-Standard’s investigation into the party pointed to a separate, annual drinking game tournament and costume party called “Beerfest” in which teams of five participated in a $40-per-team flip-cup tournament and had a prize for the “best team representing a country”. With many of the participants likely moving quickly to minimize or remove their involvement with such groups, the University will face an evidentiary challenge in seeking out individuals beyond those whose photos were already widely disseminated.
The issue of blanket sanctions will also have to be considered. With 150 participants allegedly present at the party, including individuals who were not dressed in “offensive” costumes, the University will have to consider who should be sanctioned, and to what extent. If the heated student debate across campus and on social media is any indication, any sanctions issued by Queen’s are likely to provoke a new round of controversy. In broader terms, the reach of universities in policing the behaviour of their students off-campus will also be an ongoing issue, as higher educational institutions across the country seek to maintain a balance between freedom of conscience and expression and instilling moral guidance.
Finally, the fallout from the party has implications for social activities at Queen’s Law. More than merely suggesting that students should be more careful when choosing smoker themes, it reiterates that poor judgment can quickly lead to detrimental consequences for individuals at a time where public infamy is just a tweet away. Given the close interrelationship between social and academic life at Queen’s, student awareness of the risks and their own understanding of stereotypes – especially when we profess to be more aware of the potential legal implications of our actions – will no doubt serve us well as both students and as future professionals.
Jason Liang (3L) is Managing Editor of Juris Diction.