Accountability and Complicity: Interviews with Two of the Costume-wearers.

By Mira Lerner || Copy Editor

Two went as José Cuervo, one went as a rice farmer, one went as a tequila bandit, and another wore a Dashiki. Racist costumes were an issue this Halloween, just as they have been every single year that I have been at F&M— and I am a senior.

This past Wednesday, before the student-led town hall, I interviewed two of the five students who had been photographed in racist Halloween costumes. One of the other two students that I had reached out to declined to meet, and the other never responded. After listening to their accounts, I noticed an interesting juxtaposition between two of the ways that racism can be perpetuated: through ignorance and through intention. I was left struggling with the question, what can and will the F&M community (administration, faculty and professional staff, students, alumni, etc.) do to combat ignorant and intentional racism in groups on campus, not just in individuals. 

Ignorance

The first student I spoke to bought his costume from Party City, saying, “I just went to Party City and was just going through. They only had so many to choose from” (side-note: why is Party City selling a racist costume?). He claimed to have no idea that his costume was offensive to others and had not even considered the prospect. He said that he showed the costume to friends beforehand, and no one mentioned any concerns to him: “Nobody told me ahead of time that they saw it as an issue. Even when I put it on and showed them, they didn’t see a problem.” Although it was revealed at the faculty-led rally on Friday morning that there were certain individuals on the sports team who did confront the costume wearers before Halloween, the majority did not. This reprehensible silence suggests a larger problem in the F&M community: multiple people were so ignorant and did not discuss/consider that the individual’s costume was racist.

Intention

The second student, on the other hand, openly acknowledged that he was fully aware of his costume’s insensitivity even before he donned it or showed others. Furthermore, he implicated his friends in saying that they knew as well and egged him on: “I mean I definitely knew that it could definitely be seen as a problem. I should have went [sic] with my gut feeling knowing that it was an issue versus listening to those around me, who said that some people might be offended but nothing will come from it.” He added, “I’d say I knew going in that it wasn’t right and seeing what has been happening is reinforcing that to me even more.” The initial idea for the costume had come from a friend who thought “it would be a funny idea.” 

How does this student’s awareness of his racist intentions inform the situation? It says that the harm inflicted was not accidental. It says that this student consciously decided to engage in behavior that they were aware would hurt others.

Implications

Both of the students’ accounts hinted at a larger racism-enabling culture present at F&M that goes beyond their individual choices. Notwithstanding that all five of the students photographed in offensive costumes participate in varsity sports, a recurring theme in the interviews was an attempt to disassociate the individuals’ poor decisions from their teams or all student-athletes. One person said, “People are trying to tie-in being an athlete and being racist. I don’t want to be the reason why other people are brought into this that are athletes.” While a valid concern— there certainly are non-racist athletes— it is hard not to conclude that student-athlete culture contributes to the dynamic that deemed these offensive costumes acceptable to wear. Yes, people are individuals (and therefore must be accountable for their own actions), but the reality is that athletes are part of teams and student-athlete culture at F&M. At least one of the Halloween parties that the students in racist costumes attended was hosted by a sports team. Margaret Hazlett, Vice President and Dean of Student Affairs said, “Where was the bystander intervention that night? Where were the peers saying, ‘That is not OK, get out,’ or something else? So it wasn’t just those four individuals who made a mistake.” Just because one person wore the costume does not excuse that others around them also failed to see it as racist. Or worse, bystanders knew the behavior was racist and laughed anyway. For context, one of the students’ photos that he posted to his Instagram account on Halloween received over 240 likes. That is over 240 people who endorsed the costume. Everyone else who knew about the costumes and did not say anything or supported them was complicit in the actions. 

“People shouldn’t feel that athletes feel like they can say whatever and get away with it and not having the repercussions and that we’re just insensitive as a population,” one of the students told me. Certainly the Halloween incidents seemed to bear out his statement. Ideally, people should not feel that way. People do, though, because we do not exist in an ideal world. When it comes to athletic punishment, student-athletes have the privilege of being under the jurisdiction of their coaches, separate from administration, and are often given leniency so as not to impact a team’s performance. When asked if the administration supports benching the students from future games, Dean Hazlett replied, “The athletic department has their own code of conduct that they follow and that is in conversation with the coaches. I work with coaches on their standards and expectations.”

Additionally, when comparing the financial support that athletics receives from F&M, versus, say, multicultural groups/organizations, it’s very hard not to see a discrepancy in prioritization. For starters, the Athletics and Recreation staff directory on the F&M website is 12 pages long, whereas two people comprise the Office of Multicultural Affairs. 

What’s next?

Students took matters into their own hands by calling out/naming individuals in the costumes on social media. When the college failed to issue an adequate response, Mi Gente Latina, Asian American Alliance, African Caribbean Association, and Black Student Union hosted an open meeting in the Steinman College Center. These student initiatives show: a) the power and responsibility that students have to organize, especially when the administration cannot or does not effectively facilitate/take action, b) the significance of accountability, which enabled multiple parties to have direct dialogue with each other, c) the lack of integration at F&M, and, unfortunately, d) the responsibility that inevitably falls on students of color to educate others.

Although both students I interviewed reported that they had not received any official administrative punishment, one mentioned that he was working with an unidentified Dean to “Use this spotlight to bring awareness to cultural appropriation at this school.” The other said that he was working with a Dean to host an open forum where students could come to talk to him and that “I’m doing everything I can to apologize genuinely because I am genuinely sorry.”

I wonder if these two students learned a lesson from being named/held accountable at all. If they choose to refrain from racism in the future, what will their motivation for that be? Will it arise out of genuine care for others’ feelings and dignity or fear of social repercussions such as they are experiencing now? 

I do not pose such questions to cast doubt on the character or authenticity of the interviewees. It is not my intention in any way to target specific individuals in this article; although, I do believe they should be held accountable by the school. I simply wonder what it takes to change the ignorant and intentional racism-enabling culture in our community?

Will we see the same issues next Halloween, F&M?

Mira Lerner is a Copy Editor. Her email is mlerner@fandm.edu.

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