OP-ED: F&M alumnus responds to Halloween costume incident, reaction from outside perspective

Trexler Hirn || Contributing Writer

I have been overseas studying sustainability science in Finland for the past fifteen months. I was video chatting with my mom, and she brought up the news about F&M related to the Outrage over racist costumes for Halloween. In reference to the pictures highlighted in the media, my mom said, “I don’t get it, it seems like you can’t even be a fireman these days…” No, mom. That’s not it. This isn’t about the costumes…. 

This isn’t about the costumes because I agree with you. Personally, I think the “Jose Cuervo” costume is funny, enjoyable and in good humor. I find it challenging to see it as detrimental, part of this is because I’ve seen this tequila brand associated with marketing strategies that can use cultural aspects such as the sombrero that are criticized. Granted this goes deeper into the history of why such marketing tactics are used to appeal to US consumers, but I feel this sparks such reactions because they were seen through a lens of racial prejudice as privileged white boys. But this isn’t about the costume’s mom. It’s about the community.

After my response, my mom said, “you need to write down what you just said and send it to a letter to the editor.” 

So here I am, compelled to write this letter for three reasons. The first is my mom told me to, which in and of itself should be enough. The second is I am writing this to procrastinate. I should be writing a report designing a wastewater treatment system for “sustainable” palm-based biodiesel production. Ya know, greenhouse gas emissions are bad, fossil fuels are the devil, monocropping the rainforest is the sustainable future… right. And the third, the real reason I am writing, is that I graduated from Franklin and Marshall in 2018 with a degree in Chemistry and I absolutely loved my four years at F&M.

I was immersed in and supported by a community of brilliant, motivated minds. My ideas were constantly challenged, refined, enhanced and expanded by my community. A community that was expansive and diverse: Boncheck House, the rowing team, my Brothers of Phi Kappa Psi, the Piro/Brewer/Fenlon chemistry lab, other varsity athletes, Greek life, my professors, staff, the administration but most importantly by my peers whose life experiences’ and world views were most different from mine. These peers fell into two main categories, those who are higher class, wealthier and more conservative and those who are statistically summarized as “diversity” – first-generation college students, minorities and underrepresented demographics.  

See, I had an incredible and enlightening tenure at Franklin and Marshall, it “worked” for me. The reason why I am writing this is because I want F&M to reach its potential and “work” for the whole F&M community the way it “worked” for me. I’m writing this because education is our common future, the bedrock of our democracy, the foundation of our society. I am writing this because we are divided. The F&M community is divided, our nation is divided. Many say this is a fact of reality; division is inevitable. I disagree. We can embrace some alternative facts and learn how to heal the divide. We can learn how to be one Nation, one college, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. This is our common future. 

So, what did I tell my mom about how this isn’t about the costumes? 

This isn’t about the costumes nor is this about the specific incident, though that’s how it appears through the media coverage. This is about the pattern.

It’s the pattern of microaggressions that push a significant portion of F&M’s community into a state of discomfort. It’s the pattern that this portion of the community feels blatantly ignored by the campus administration and the operating culture of the College. It’s the fact that incidents like this have continually happened in our college’s deep and recent past, yet there has not been a productive response to them. 

Ultimately, it’s the pattern that the F&M community is and has been uncomfortable.  And this is the aspect that is mocked – us Millennial and Gen Z, so sensitive, such snowflakes. This discomfort, however, is not something to mock, its something to seek to understand. 

So, take a breath. Open your mind. Hear me out.

The purpose of American higher education is to progress society. The students at F&M, are some of the most talented, insightful, and driven individuals in the Nation. Their discomfort is telling. How so? Creative, innovative and ambitious people work with the utmost grit to maximize their potential, to create the greatest value for society – when this doesn’t happen it gets uncomfortable. The discomfort of the F&M community is telling me that the College is not reaching its potential. 

Why is this, what do I mean? Recently, the composition of the F&M community has changed, the College has become more “diverse.” What this means is brilliant people who have historically not been represented in elite American higher education are now represented. These brilliant people, however, have a different context, a different experience with the system of higher education than the previous generations of university students. These different contexts, different experiences, this more diverse composition of the campus community requires our institution to learn, to evolve, and to grow in order to cultivate the greatest potential for the community. 

The events at F&M, the protests, aren’t about the costumes. They are about the pattern of a continued lack of response to repeated incidents that divide our community. Such patterns make it feel that our institution is unwilling to learn, unwilling to evolve, unwilling to grow.  

The issue here is the community is divided. This Halloween incident is an example of perpetuating the division. It’s not the costumes, it’s the divide in the community and the minimal, yet ineffective approaches to healing the divide. These protests represent that deep, passionate belief that the F&M Community can learn from this, can grow from this. But that won’t happen by focusing on the costumes, because that isn’t the story. 

The story here is the need for community-wide commitment to fully embark on the challenging, uncomfortable process of healing our divide. Of learning how we can grow together as a community while being empowered by our diversity. Of learning how we can continually evolve our institution and American higher education to progress our society. It isn’t about the costumes. It’s about our common future. 

Trexler Hirn is an F&M alumnus. His email is Trexler.Hirn@lut.fi.

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