Updated Mon, Oct 31, 2011 11:18 am
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That reputation has grown over the years, and now the Athens, Ohio, campus is at the top of the "best party school" lists — and Halloween is the jewel in that crown.
But a tiny student group organized to stop racism put Halloween at my alma mater on the map well before the first keg was tapped.
In the posters, an Asian girl holds a photo of someone dressed as a geisha; a Middle Eastern student holds a picture of someone dressed as an Arab — with a bomb strapped around his waist. There is a Native American costume and someone dressed as a pimp and, well, you get the idea.
The posters read, "We're a culture, not a costume. This is not who I am, and this is not okay."
The first poster hadn't been nailed to the first tree before the world came calling. Time magazine, CNN, ABC News, Huffington Post, just to name a handful of the marquee news outlets, reported on the campaign.
"We wanted to highlight these offensive costumes because we've all seen them," said STARS president Sarah Williams. She wanted to raise awareness and start a conversation, she said.
But instead she managed to get my dear old school tattooed as, God forbid, politically correct. A school as stuffy and hidebound as any of the East Coast temples of learning that, as those of us who graduated from OU were regularly reminded, we had not attended.
Ohio University has a proud history of student protest; students closed the school in the aftermath of the shootings at Kent State. But in truth, we are better known for our version of the Arab Spring. Students take to the streets on the first warm evening for no particular reason, and the Athens police join them there.
And, as a parent, I often cringed at the fact that OU keeps making anybody's top 10 list of places where your child can get incredibly drunk every weekend.
But this? This is too much. Ohio University is now known for students as hyper-sensitive as that delicate plant we grew in our dorm windows that wasn't marijuana. Now the world thinks Bobcats don't have a sense of humor or a Big 10 football team.
Every website that reported on the OU poster campaign was flooded with emails, and you could hear the groaning. "Really?" and "Seriously?" There was lots of tiresome complaining about how "sexy nurse" and "sexy pirate" costumes objectify women — and what about redneck get-ups that stereotype poor white people?
Reading them, I felt like I was back at OU and sitting cross-legged on the grass in a consciousness-raising group, which is what we did before we started filing sex discrimination lawsuits.
The only thing that made me smile was the mocking poster of a dog holding up a picture of a human in a dog costume with the same complaint: "This is not who I am, and this is not okay."
If we aren't careful, we are going to sanitize Halloween the way we have the Winter Holiday and its companion, the Spring Holiday.
And none of our daughters will be able to dress as Snow White, because Walt Disney was a bigot. And none of our sons can trick-or-treat as a pirate, because Johnny Depp's limp-wristed performance could be considered offensive to gays.
There are limits, of course. Target pulled its "illegal alien" costume — an orange jumpsuit with an alien mask. An Arab bomber costume feeds a particularly ugly stereotype, and could actually get you arrested. And I think we've learned that there is not much that's funny about Hitler ("Strawberry Shortcake" Hitler comes close).
This year, I've decided on a Halloween costume that would make the Ohio University I remember proud. I am going to go as Richard Nixon.