The tribal theme is not an open invitation to dress insensitively, says Tab editor Matt McDonald
Along with extra layers, dodgy moustaches and crazed Devonian brutes charging through the streets with flaming tar barrels, what really defines November for us here at Exeter is hype. Hype around the event we all wait for more than Christmas, birthdays and Halloween rolled into one: the Safer Sex Ball.
Following the 10 November announcement of the tribal theme, various points of view have been bandied about the Internet, threatening the very composition of the ball that is one of FHM’s “top things to do before you die”. The comments section of the Tab alone reveals punters who feel the theme is “another opportunity to black up” or “probably the most racist thing I have ever seen put on by a University sanctioned institution.” A campaign group formed against the “racist safer sex ball theme” emerged on Facebook on Thursday.
Are the Safer Sex Ball Committee and the Students’ Guild racist for allowing this to be signed off as the theme? Of course not. While the word “tribal” is anthropologically problematic, it does not in and of itself have overwhelming racial connotations.
As someone with Irish parentage, I am a descendant of a Celtic tribe. As a McDonald, I am a member of a Scottish clan. Were I to assume the dress of either of these anthropological groups, would I be making a racially derogatory statement? No. I’d be staying true to my heritage.
Admittedly, we are an overwhelmingly white university, and therefore some of us may struggle to be as tolerant of other cultures as those in a more diverse part of the country. But as we know from their press release back in February, the Guild do not condone blacking up. I don’t believe for one second that the words “tribal” and “blackface” are interchangeable. Daisy Buchanan’s range at this year’s New York Fashion week were “tribal-themed”, and I didn’t see a single minstrel on the catwalk.
This is clearly not an open invitation from Rag for a minority of students to dress in a culturally insensitive fashion. We’re an intellectual, free-thinking academic body who hopefully knows for itself what is and isn’t socially acceptable. If anything, I feel that we need a stronger anti-racist stance from the SSB Committee.
Keep the theme, for all it matters: in my experience, not many people choose to adhere to it sartorially anyway. But why not clear up this mess with a single statement: if you are dressed in a way that is culturally insensitive, be it blackface or otherwise, you will not be getting through the door. That way, we can all have the safe, sexy and inoffensive night that we all know and love.