F&M’s Halloween 2019 in Retrospect

By Rohail Spear || Staff Writer

What exactly is cultural appropriation, and what steps is F&M’s administration taking to ensure another incident like last year’s Halloween does not occur again?

Cultural appropriation is the borrowing of ideas from one culture and adopting them as your own. These ideas can include types of dance, dress, music, language, and other cultural practices. At face value, cultural appropriation may seem like respecting, acknowledging, and appreciating a different culture. It is easy to understand why one may think that wearing cornrows gives a positive impression: one person may admire how cornrows look on people of other ethnicities so much that that person wants cornrows themselves. 

However, cultural appropriation ultimately robs a minoritized culture of the credit it deserves. It reduces an idea significant to that culture into a mere trend. To those who had never been exposed to that culture’s idea before, it might even seem like a creation of the majority group and in turn imply that the minority group lacks creativity and innovation. What’s more, wearing costumes mirroring the clothing of other ethnicities can seem like mocking that culture or not taking it seriously, which is exactly what happens on Halloween at campuses across the country, including Franklin and Marshall.

The weekend following Halloween 2019, several athletes wore racially insensitive costumes to a party. Photos taken that night depict “two soccer players [wearing] stereotypical mustaches,” “basketball players dressed in stereotypical Mexican clothing and as an Asian ‘rice paddy farmer,’” and another “soccer player in traditional African clothing” (The College Reporter). In one photo, the student pulled his eyes in a stereotypical manner. 

Once these images circulated, students were furious, and protests quickly ensued. In one case, students delayed a men’s basketball game by sitting quietly on the court. An open letter signed by ten student groups including the Asian American Alliance, the Black Student Union, and the African Caribbean Association was published by The College Reporter holding the college accountable for failing to punish students involved in prior incidents and, consequently, for the fact that this incident occurred. While the college sent out several emails and held forums regarding the issue, the offended students demanded more. 

In response, Dean Margaret Hazlett, Provost Cam Wesson, and President Barbara Altmann wrote a letter briefly describing three initiatives in the works: “The Campus Climate Survey is open until November 15 and will give us valuable data. In the spring we will hire a director of diversity, equity, and inclusion. And we will have a bias response reporting system ready to go live in the spring semester (Franklin and Marshall College).” 

The Campus Climate Survey was released on September 30, 2020, and it did, indeed, provide valuable, if not concerning, information: 33.6% of respondents believed that the climate was negative for people of color and 37.1% believed that the climate was negative for non-native English speakers. 

The bias response reporting system went live on January 21, 2020, and the Director of Diversity started work on August 20, 2020. Still, many students believe that the college needed to take more drastic actions, including revising the Student Code of Conduct to provide consequences for those who partake in racist actions and increase funding of minority clubs and departments.

In a recent interview, Dean of Students Collette Shaw outlined a few steps that F&M is taking to ensure that history does not repeat itself. She listed several programs and councils designed for open dialogues about racism on campus and appropriate costumes, such as the Halloween Costume Appropriateness Workshop. She also hinted at a possible curricular change, which will involve a mandatory class educating students on identity, similar to the Non-Western course requirement. 

Dean Shaw also cited keystones as a crucial component in abolishing systemic racism on campus. She explained how every student in a residential hall has been having conversations about “all kinds of topics,” like offensive Halloween costumes, since the beginning of the year. Notably, participation in keystones is not enforced and it is not uncommon for them to have poor attendance.

Dean Shaw also detailed how the administration redesigned the college’s student conduct process. When asked if she thought that the college handled the situation adequately last year, she cited the conduct process as a fault. At the time of the incident, she said that the college was using an outdated model that essentially involved identifying and punishing students in a completely private way. In the new process, which she calls a “restorative” practice, there is an emphasis on educating the wrongdoer and having them talk with those they offended. Dean Shaw strives to create an environment where if one person says something offensive, their friend would be comfortable enough explaining to them why their words were inappropriate. Indeed, she believes that “we’re more open to conversation now.”

While the incident was publicized by the local press and was widely discussed on campus, the punishments that the offending students received were never disclosed. Dean Shaw did not reveal the information about the students’ punishments: she stated that federal law protects those students’ punishments from becoming public knowledge. However, she does believe that the students received ample reparations.

When asked specifically about the motives behind the students involved, Dean Shaw believes that, despite recognizing that there were some disturbing photos, malice was not their intention. “Those weren’t five white guys,” she says, recognizing their ethnic differences. She believes that the students were simply ignorant, and when asked if the blame should be placed on the students, the college, or society, Dean Shaw believed that all three contributed to the ignorant costumes. She mentioned the lack of intentional community-building on campus as a primary reason. “F&M is built on hierarchies, and we’re doing the best we can to flatten those hierarchies” to build a more welcoming, safe, and open environment. 

Original The College Reporter article.

Open Letter.

First-Year Rohail Spear is a Staff Writer. His email is rspear@fandm.edu.

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