Anger, controversy sparked over racist Halloween costumes worn by students

By Katherine Coble || News Editor

Photo courtesy of Mira Lerner ‘20

The Franklin & Marshall College campus has been awash with tension, anger, and frustration this week as images surfaced of several male students, all athletes, wearing racially stereotypical costumes to a Halloween party during the weekend of November 1st-3rd.

In one picture, two soccer players wore stereotypical mustaches and Mexican apparel in an attempt to be a fictional ‘Jose Cuervo’, a tequila brand named for agave farmer and entrepreneur Don Jose Antonio de Cuervo, who began his family business in the 1750s. In another, basketball players dressed in stereotypical Mexican clothing and as an Asian “rice paddy farmer” with soy sauce hanging from his neck. In a widely-circulated photo, the student dressed as the rice farmer pulled his eyes into a mocking pose. A final photo showed a soccer player in traditional African clothing known as a Dashiki. All were posted on social media like Instagram and Snapchat before being shared widely among the student body on a variety of platforms. 

One such platform was the Protest Tree, which was inundated with signs related to the incident – including pictures of the students in their costumes and a complete list of their names. Some signs called on them to face repercussions from potential employers. Others expressed doubt that the students would be punished at all, due to their status as student-athletes. Still more demanded change from the administration. The anger was palpable, and quickly spread around campus. 

This incident is not the first of its kind at Franklin & Marshall. Four years ago, several brothers of Phi Kappa Tau fraternity were reprimanded for culturally offensive Halloween costumes. Last year, still more male students faced backlash for costumes depicting nuns and stereotypical “Arabs.” In both cases, email blasts were sent out to the Franklin & Marshall student body reminding them to be mindful of their costumes and respectful of the community – but this incident has been perceived as a breaking point by many. This may in part be because of a still-unsolved hate crime against Asian students on campus which occurred earlier in the semester, when racial slurs were etched into the door of an Asian-American student’s room in Schnader Hall. 

In an email sent out to the campus community on Wednesday, November 6, Dean Margaret Hazlett, Provost Cam Wesson, and President Barbara Altmann said that “the students who wore the costumes met with Student Affairs staff as well as colleagues in the Office of Multicultural Programs as part of the College’s adjudication process.” These students “expressed remorse for their actions” and the administration insisted that “there is no place at F&M for racist actions and cultural appropriation.” They then identified three initiatives “in the works” to deal with this and other issues related to racism on campus: the campus climate survey due November 15, the hiring of a director for “diversity, equity, and inclusion”, and the development bias response reporting system. The latter two initiatives are slated to begin in spring of 2020. 

In an email shortly afterwards, Altmann, Wesson, and Hazlett announced their decision to remove certain posters from the Protest Tree – a longstanding unspoken rule among the student body. Specifically, they removed the signs which named the offenders by name and called for repercussions against them, such as their employment prospects. They stated that these signs “are inconsistent with Franklin & Marshall’s Statement on Freedom of Expression” and had contributed to “threatening, violent online messages” against the students involved. They also announced the development of a forum to be held on racism and cultural appropriation in the following week, later determined to be Tuesday, November 12. 

Many students, unsatisfied with this response, held immediate student-only forums to discuss the incident. These included a discussion hosted by organizations including the Black Student Union, Mi Gente Latina, the Asian-American Alliance, and the International Student Advisory Board. Another forum was held by the Diplomatic Congress. Both discussed issues of cultural appropriation versus appreciation, respect for students of color, and what concrete steps need to be taken by the athletic department and the administration to respond to this incident in an effective manner. 

On Friday morning, November 8, hundreds of students and faculty gathered on Hartman Green in a rally to call for action on this issue. Many professors cancelled class, the Writing Center shut down for the morning, and students left their classrooms or workplaces to stand in solidarity with the students of color on F&M’s campus. The rally, which was organized by professors seeking to show their support for students in a more concrete manner, featured chants, speeches, and demands for change. 

The response from the athletic department, both during this rally and in general, has been mixed. The interim women’s basketball coach spoke at the rally about the importance of education and the need for white students (or students from other majority groups) to take it upon themselves to engage in difficult dialogue to expand their worldview. However, another representative from the department mentioned that the decision over whether or not to bench players would be up to the department to decide internally, upsetting many students in attendance. 

Later in the day, to reiterate their support, the faculty sent out a “Statement of Support Against Racism.” In this letter, these professors said they “affirm the right of all students to feel safe and welcome on campus, and we view incidents of this type as serious challenges to the environment of critical thinking and free speaking that is central to our College mission.” This statement, which called for “standardized institutional structures for reporting and dealing with racist acts and/or language on campus,” was signed by more than 250 F&M professors, faculty, and other staff members. 

No official statement has been released by the men’s soccer team, men’s basketball team, or athletic department more generally regarding the incident. Additionally, no decision been publicly announced about what punishment these students will face for their actions – either by their team or the school. In the meantime, the campus community continues to plan forums, protests, and demand action on the issues of racism and cultural appropriation. 

Senior Katherine Coble is the news editor. Her email is kcoble@fandm.edu.

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