LMH bop was the scene of confrontation and alleged racism this weekend after two student activists labelled costumes ‘racist caricatures’ and reduced a social secretary to tears.
Charlotte Sykes, former editor of Cuntry Living and LMH 3rd year, and Annie Teriba, former Access and Admissions Officer at OUSU, took issue with the ‘Arabian Nights’ theme on the grounds that it “produced racist costumes”. When challenged by Teriba at the bop, the social sec burst into tears.
There was support for anger over the costumes amongst LMH JCR members, with one saying on Facebook: “people seemed to be lumping entire Asian cultures together that had no relevance whatsoever”, particularly in the case of someone wearing an Indian flag.
However, censorship of the theme provoked a backlash. 2nd year Psychology Student, Clara Davis, commented: “My mum – fully Arabic and blessed with the ‘evidence’ of her olive skin – was excited to help me with this theme. But is she the only one with the right to celebrate our culture with these clothes?”
Some were critical of the behaviour of the activists at the bop; a member of the JCR Exec who was a DJ at the bop told Sykes: “you pissed me off and kind of upset me last night with your condescending and quite frankly patronising attitude”.
Teriba explained her problem with the theme, saying: “I explained what my feelings on the matter were on the night. I’m sure you will agree it is really problematic to have an Oxford bop where predominantly white students dress up as orientalising caricatures of a diverse culture (hook hands, tea-towels on people’s heads and the recurring trope of the highly sexualised Arab woman).”
Teriba, a Wadham student, went on to describe her argument with the social sec: “I had approached a guy to discuss why his costume was problematic and this evolved into a broader conversation about how racialised bop themes produce quite racist caricatures.
“It became apparent that one of the people in the conversation was a social secretary. I commend her on recognising that racism is wrong but she seemed more concerned with clarifying that she is not racist than with engaging with my points (1. Other cultures are not costumes, especially when they get derided for them. 2. Intention is not the centre, it was not about blame but a suggestion that future bops not be racialised.)
“Unfortunately, she was overwhelmed and began to cry, as I consoled her, I explained that the bop theme produced racist costumes, and while it’s unclear what exactly she had expected, that she hadn’t intended it to be racist, did not stop it from normalising racist tropes.
“To be clear, the issue was orientalism more than cultural appropriation. If you’d like to know more about orientalism, Edward Said’s book of the same name offers insights or feel free to message me.”
Sykes posted her views on the JCR Facebook page the day after the bop, along with Wikipedia links.
Student reaction to the post has been extreme. One person commenting on the Facebook post, who introduced themselves as “arab here” said: “Is it not equally racist to assume a) all people in the middle east and the peninsula mentioned in the article dress the same b) all Arabian peoples dress as the great Wikipedia decrees. I tend to wear jeans and a t-shirt when I’m not being ‘bombed the fuck out of’.”
However, they went on to label the bop costumes a “manifestation of… ignorance”, and tell Sykes, “I appreciate the message you’re trying to send”.
Another JCR member questioned: “I wonder if it is equally as ‘racist’ to assume you should not be wearing these outfits simply because you are white?”
One thing’s for sure: there is a very pissed off DJ in LMH. In the Facebook post below, the member of the JCR Exec. blasts Sykes, saying: “you were just desperate to be able to stand in the corner looking down on us racist pigs while trying to reassure yourself of your own perfect self”.
The DJ then signed off as “that shitty DJ you criticised endlessly last night. Peace.”
VERSA will make sure not to get on the wrong side of LMH’s JCR committee…
But seriously, why the fuck didn’t they have Whitney Houston?
Frank Macpherson, St Catz student and guest of Sykes at the bop, said in her defence: “People have responded to Lottie [Sykes] and Annie’s criticism, which was made calmly and reasonably, with personal attacks. The longest comment on that thread [under Sykes’ initial post] is about DJing, not orientalism, nor cultural appropriation. Wtf?
“The image of them running in, attacking people, is also wrong. I saw Annie consoling the girl in tears. This is not what the response should look like.”
LMH JCR has released the following statement:
“The bop theme last Saturday was announced five days in advance, and was intended to refer to the collection of folk tales, ‘One Thousand and One Nights’. The JCR Executive received no formal complaint about this theme prior to this event.
“The JCR Executive is always prepared to remove anyone from a Bop who is dressed in a manner that may be deemed offensive.
“The JCR Executive is proud that LMH is home to people of all race, gender, sexuality and faith. To this end, since the start of this academic year the Executive has sought to increase its representation of equality-related issues by creating a new Equalities Committee. LMH is proud to host ‘A World at LMH’ starting on 20th February – a weekend of events celebrating diversity at our College.” Just in time?
Charlotte Sykes was contacted for comment.
Has the ‘culture of censorship’ debate finally made its way to North Oxford? As one LMH 2nd Year Classicist commented ‘What if I want to dress up as Princess Jasmine?!’
Edit: A comment has been included by Frank Macpherson, a St Catz student and guest of Sykes at the bop.