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No dressing up as a Native American, a Mexican, or an Olympic athlete

Introduction weeks — Management at the Faculty of Law have expressly forbidden theme parties where new students dress up like Mexicans, Olympic athletes of different nationalities, and theologians. But you are welcome to dress up as ‘rich kids' and high achievers.

A tradition for new law students to dress up at themed parties at introduction weeks for new students has led to a contentious debate at the faculty.

Where do you draw the line on what to wear without offending someone, and to what extent should the university intervene and stop the fun?

The tutors for the introduction programme at the Faculty of Law had planned themes like ‘Native Americans’ [in Danish, ‘Indianere’, ed. ], ‘ghetto ‘, ‘church camp’, ‘white trash’, ‘Mexicans’, Olympic Games opening ceremony with different nationalities, ‘theologians’ and ‘Paradise Hotel’.

“We did not have the intention of making fun of anyone. We just wanted to dress up,” says law student Jakob Krabbe Sørensen, spokesman for the tutors.

He says that it is a tradition to dress up, because it’s fun, and because it helps to break down barriers between the new students when they put on a costume.

No to stereotypes

This was stopped by an email from the faculty management two days before the introduction week was to start.

Costume themes that stereotype people on ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion etc may not be used.

Faculty of Law management to the intro week tutors

“I recommend strongly that you, with the coordinators, as soon as possible take another look at the costume categories again to ensure that the themes live up to the faculty’s values of diversity and non-discrimination. This means that costume themes that, say, stereotype people on ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion etc may not be used,” it states in the mail.

Stine Jørgensen, Associate Dean for Education at the Faculty of Law, states that the faculty received three specific inquiries from students who had been offended by study-intro activities and costume themes.

“We responded to the first inquiry and organised a meeting the following day, where we talked through it with the student and the student’s contact tutor,” she writes in a reply by email.

Not an invitation to dialogue

According to law student Jakob Krabbe Sørensen, who speaks on behalf of the tutors, they were in no doubt that management wanted the dressing up to stop.

“When we as students receive this message from higher up in the system, then we honestly don’t see this as a reminder to think things over. Seen in the context of the way the faculty’s recommendation was communicated to us, in conjunction with the new UCPH guidelines on zero tolerance for offensive behaviour, we all understood the recommendation as a specific, and unambiguous, prohibition,” he says.

Stine Jørgensen is sad that the letter was received like this.

“One of the problems has probably been that we were very close to the introduction trips, and had to react fast. So we were not able to include all of the tutors in the dialogue. Some may therefore have felt that the decision went over their heads,” she writes.

Wrong line

Jakob Krabbe Sørensen emphasises that the tutors understand that it is not up to them to decide what should be permitted. But he says that most of them feel that management has drawn the line too strictly..

We believe that it is wrong to practice censorship in advance, as none of the themes are racist or deliberately offensive

Law students’ tutor Jakob Krabbe Sørensen

“We disagree with the decision, but we understand that management has felt compelled to make a decision on behalf of individuals who have been offended. We believe that it is wrong to practice censorship in advance, as none of the themes are racist or deliberately offensive,” he says.

Stine Jørgensen says that as a rule it is always good to have an inclusive introduction to studies, and that the faculty, like everyone else, operates within the framework of the harassment concept in the Danish discrimination law.

“The law specifies that it is not a requirement that there is intent to offend someone, but that it is enough to be offensive. It is a new way of thinking that we need to deal with, even though it is hard to get the balance right,” the Associate Dean writes.

Olympic Games not allowed

The selection of themes that have been allowed, and prohibited, does not seem logical to the tutors.

The students were allowed to have an Olympic theme with different sports, but they were not allowed to dress up as different nationalities.

They ended up specifically dropping dressing up as athletes from Russia, France, Mexico, Denmark, the United States, Brazil, China and Egypt at the planned opening ceremony.

“We selected the Olympic theme based on the idea that this is a recognised international sports event, which is a celebration of nationalities, not a smear campaign,” says Jakob Krabbe Sørensen.

The Paradise Hotel theme was also rejected, as it could be sexualising. Why the students were not allowed to dress up as theologians, is still not understood by the tutors.

On the other hand, it was deemed OK to dress up as ‘Rich Kids’ (young people from the upper class with rich parents), high achievers, doctors and scientists.

No to nachos and sombreros

According to Jakob Krabbe Sørensen, who is also an intern in the think tank Justitia, the tutors had considered carefully which costume themes were to be included. And they had discarded ideas that they considered exclusionary.

The new students were just given a word that defined the framework of their theme, and the rest was up to their own interpretation, he says.

I wouldn’t feel offended if I was an exchange student at an American college, and they had a party where they dressed up as Vikings

Law students’ tutor Jakob Krabbe Sørensen

Native Americans [‘Indianere’, ed. ] and cowboys were intended as a historical theme, and they did not perceive it as something that could offend a contemporary minority.

“It cannot be true that we are not allowed to dress up as Native Americans, a theme, where you can go down and buy the costume at a Fætter BR toy shop,” he says, and adds:

“What we imagined with the Mexicans was nachos and a sombrero. We know this is a caricature. But I wouldn’t feel offended if I was an exchange student at an American college, and there was a party, where they dressed up as Vikings.”

Support from commentators

The tutors were supported by Jacob Mchangama, who himself holds a law degree from the University of Copenhagen and is now director of the think tank Justitia.

He sees the Faculty of Law intervention in the students’ choice of costumes as a consequence of the new UCPH guidelines on sexual harassment and other offensive behaviour. The guidelines mean that it is the individual employee or student’s experience of offensive remarks/behaviour that is the starting point.

The university should be a place where young people are confronted with ideas and statements that challenge them

Lawyer Jacob Mchangama, the think tank Justitia

“In my opinion, it is a huge let-down of students that UCPH interprets ‘inclusion’ and ‘diversity’ to be values that are based on self-censorship, and that the students may not be offended. The university is precisely the place where young people are confronted with ideas and statements that challenge them, make them uncomfortable, provoke them and make them think critically and independently,” he writes in a post on Facebook.

The Socialist People’s Party (SF) politician Leif Donbæk, who also has a law degree from UCPH, has also entered the debate with a featured comment on the Berlingske news site.

He writes that he himself was dressed up as a ninja, when the theme was superheroes at the 2012 study intro.

“The thesis is apparently that if you are of Native American origin, it is traumatic to see a fellow student with a feathered headdress. Just as we in the Nordic region should be outraged by seeing non-Scandinavians wearing “Viking helmets with horns” and the like. And because these weak souls are offended, then the solution is apparently not that they get a grip and try to judge for themselves whether they have the will power to handle the challenges of a university study. No, the solution is to prohibit everything that can be interpreted as offensive. I hope personally that have not offended some Japanese people by my cultural appropriation of their ‘ninja costume’,” he writes on the Berlingske site.

Student organisations disagree

The major student organisations at the Faculty of Law disagree on the issue.

Conservative Law Students write in a post on Facebook that they do not understand why the costume can be interpreted as offensive.

“We are not talking about events that specifically point to vulnerable groups or minorities, but merely harmless activities where everyone dresses up in accordance with different themes. We consider it as part of a tolerant society, that adults can look at each other’s customs and behaviours without fear,” the association writes.

It’s all about not creating a culture where there is space for racism.

Mads Markvard Holscher, Progressive Law Students

According to Progressive Law Students, there needs to be space for everyone. And this is not the case if you divide people into stereotypic themes like ‘Indians’ and ‘Mexicans’ that simply uphold caricatures.

Mads Markvard Holscher says to DR that it opens up a space for racism, and that he is therefore unable to understand how people defend it.

“It’s all about not creating a culture where there is space for racism. It needs to be a safe and healthy environment on the study programme. You should not, as a new student, be met with prejudices and offensive behaviour,” he says to the Danish TV station DR.

United Law Students (Forenede Jurister, ed.) also supports the study programme management’s intervention:

“The University of Copenhagen must lead the way on diversity, equality and zero tolerance towards discrimination. At the Faculty of Law, we are very concerned with well-being, as we believe that well-being is part and parcel of a good study environment. A Mexican theme is probably just a good excuse to drink tequila and coronas at social events. Can we achieve the same thing without dressing up as something that potentially could be experienced as offensive?” Sofie Rasmussen, chairman of the United Law Students said to the DR broadcaster.

Jakob Krabbe Sørensen has subsequently considered what it is that is the most important issue in all the fuss since UCPH introduced its zero tolerance policy:

“The intention to offend has no longer any importance, and it is only the subjective assessment of the offence. This means that a few individuals’ subjective experience is left to dictate the intro week for hundreds of other students who did not shout out. We will end up in a situation where violations of UCPH guidelines will be random assessments based on personal estimates,” he says.

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