The student government of Queen’s University has condemned a recent party attended by undergraduates that involved wearing stereotypical national costumes, photos of which have elicited heated criticism on social media for their “racist” depictions of foreign cultures.

The Saturday event featured mostly white students dressed as Middle Eastern sheiks, Viet Cong guerrillas, Buddhist monks and dreadlocked Rastafarians, among other cultural groups.

The controversy mirrors similar incidents at other North American universities in recent years involving Halloween costumes that “appropriate” non-Western cultures. It also highlights long-standing concerns about the climate for non-white students on the Kingston campus.

In a statement, Queen’s principal Daniel Woolf said the party was not sanctioned by the school’s senior administration.

“We are taking the matter very seriously, and continue to look into it,” he wrote.

He added that the event appears to have taken place off campus but suggested the school could still respond if it found a Queen’s connection to the party.

“If we determine that this was a Queen’s sponsored or sanctioned event, we will take appropriate action,” he said. “Any event that degrades, mocks or marginalizes a group or groups of people is completely unacceptable.”

It’s unclear who organized the event, although a party-planning outfit for the school’s Commerce faculty called All Year Social hosted a similar party last year, photos of which show students holding chopsticks and squinting their eyes. In a written statement, the group denied involvement in this year’s event, saying it was run by another group of students.

The controversy has disturbed some non-white students at the school, said Carolyn Thompson, vice-president of university affairs with the Alma Mater Society, which represents undergraduate students.

“Very clearly this was extremely inappropriate, and actions like these make marginalized students feel unwelcome and uncomfortable on our campus,” she said. “We’ve had a number of students approach us about this issue, just voicing this concern.”

Ms. Thompson called for greater campus-wide education on issues related to race and said she hoped the student body would launch “discussions” on the subject.

Queen’s alumnus Emily Macgillivray said a conversation on race at Queen’s would be long overdue. She received both her undergraduate and master’s degrees from the school between 2004 and 2011. Once or twice a year there would be parties in which people wore offensive costumes, including blackface, she recalled.

“I think there is definitely a strong culture of whiteness at Queen’s,” Ms. Macgillivray said.

Celeste Yim, a Toronto comedian who drew attention to the photos of the party on Twitter this week, said many Queen’s students had defended the event in messages to her and complained that she was overreacting. But Ms. Yim stood by her decision to post the images in an interview on Tuesday, pointing to what she called the “wide breadth of racism” they displayed.

“There’s something so charged and loaded about perpetuating stereotypes and cartoons and characterizations of people of colour,” she said. “You cannot divorce dressing up in rice hats from racism against Asian people. It just doesn’t work that way. And it’s pretty shocking that that’s so hard for people to understand.”

The Globe and Mail
Published Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2016 8:33PM EST
Last updated Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2016 8:37PM EST