After Racially Stereotypical Costumes Last Halloween, F&M has Increased its Focus on Issues of Racism, but Still has a Long way to go

By Daniel Robillard || Investigative Reporter

Following a wave of outrage after several students wore racially stereotypical costumes during the weekend of Halloween in 2019, Franklin & Marshall College has engaged in an increased effort to address issues of racism, diversity, and inclusion on its campus. One year later there have been many changes, but the F&M community is still dealing with frustration over the College’s response.  

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A student holds up a copy of the Administration’s response at a protest rally on Hartman Green last fall after several students wore racially stereotypical costumes on Halloween weekend (photo courtesy of Mira Lerner||TCR)

In early November of last year, several photos circulated on social media platforms showing five F&M students—members of the Men’s Basketball and Soccer teams—posing for photos at Halloween parties while wearing racially stereotypical costumes. Some of the students in the photographs wore stereotypical mustaches and Mexican clothing, pretending to be “Jose Cuervo,” a Mexican brand of tequila. Another student was dressed in stereotypical Asian clothing—which included wearing a string of soy sauce packets around his neck—and mockingly pulled his eyes back as he posed for the camera. In another photo, a student at a party posed while wearing a Dashiki, a traditional West African garment.

The photos sparked widespread outrage among students, and many expressed frustration over what they saw as the College’s inaction in responding to issues of racism on campus. In a letter to the administration of the College, ten multicultural student groups on campus listed several past incidents of racial discrimination at F&M that had led to only muted responses from administrators, including a slur being carved into the door of an Asian-American student’s dorm room earlier that semester and several other occasions in previous years where students wore racially stereotypical costumes during Halloween.

As administrators sent emails condemning the costumes worn in the photos, many students continued to grow more frustrated with what was widely received as the Administration paying ‘lip service’ to issues of racism on campus and a lack of fundamental change occurring within the College. On the Friday following Halloween weekend, hundreds of students, faculty, and staff participated in a protest rally organized by several faculty members in the center of campus on Hartman Green and called for the College to act on the Halloween incident and on racism at F&M in general. Many professors canceled their classes that day in support of the protest and in solidarity with students of color at F&M. 

Hundreds of students, faculty, and staff gather at a protest rally on Hartman Green on November 8, 2019 (photo courtesy of Mira Lerner||TCR)

That night, students held a sit-in before a Men’s Basketball game in Mayser Gymnasium, leading to the cancellation of the game ten minutes later. The following day, hundreds of students lined the walkway between Old Main and Shadek-Fackenthal Library during an open house for prospective students and demanded change and action from the Administration. Many of those students then walked to stand outside Tylus field to protest a Men’s Soccer playoff game.    

In response to the repeated calls for action, the Administration issued a letter on November 13 detailing some of the steps the College had already taken and listed several goals and objectives aimed at promoting Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) issues at F&M. The letter promised progress on increasing diversity training for students, faculty, staff, and athletic teams and Greek life as well as reforming the College’s code of conduct, creating a bias reporting system, and organizing a DEI Office with a new administrator position dedicated to those issues. 

Now a year has passed and the College has made substantial progress on most of the goals and objectives it said it would take after last Halloween, but still, many students have remained vocal about what they see as a lack of fundamental change at F&M.  

The racially stereotypical costumes worn by the student-athletes last Halloween—and the wave of response from students that followed—prompted many students to become more active in pushing for change at F&M. “I was deeply hurt by the events that occurred last Halloween,” Junior Juan Ayala said. “I come from one of the cultures that was appropriated and humiliated and I wanted to step up as a leader after that.”

This semester, Ayala was asked by the Diplomatic Congress—F&M’s student government body—to serve as the student representative on the Ad Hoc Committee on Halloween Conduct, a group created by the College to address cultural appropriation around Halloween costumes following the racially stereotypical costumes that sparked outrage last year.

During the Committee’s meetings, which began this October, Ayala said that he voiced his feelings that the College had not been doing nearly enough to address racial justice and cultural appropriation. He pressed members of the Committee on issues with the College’s Student Code of Conduct and a lack of accountability for the students in the photos from last Halloween.

“The response from the administrators on the committee has been very passive,” Ayala told The College Reporter before the Committee’s fourth meeting last week. “I feel as though the College wants to go in the right direction, but I also feel that they are still diverging from wanting fundamental change.”

Ayala said he was also concerned that, despite the College’s efforts to put a greater emphasis on issues of diversity and inclusion following last Halloween, many still had not fundamentally changed the way they look at issues of racism on campus. “I haven’t seen a lot of understanding or change in the Administration’s thinking since last Halloween,” he said. “The College is still looking at this issue as a Halloween issue, not a systemic issue, an issue of racism.”

Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Dr. Gretchel Hathaway, who was brought in at the start of this semester to head the College’s new DEI Office, said that while she was not at F&M last Halloween, she had followed what was happening through her son, who graduated from F&M in 2007. “I hear the passion in folks’ voices of wanting change and wanting action,” she said.

In an interview last week with The College Reporter, Hathaway said that she did not feel that the College was just treating issues of racism and cultural appropriation as a “Halloween issue.” The reason the College is centering these conversations so much around Halloween, she said, “is because it is the one day here in the U.S. that people are most likely to wear a costume.” Hathaway emphasized that “cultural appropriation is not just about Halloween, it’s about teaching cultural awareness.”

Along with Ayala, many other student leaders at F&M have highlighted the need for greater change that sees the issue of what happened last Halloween as a product of a systemic problem at the College—not as just an isolated incident. They demanded that changes be made to the College’s Student Code of Conduct and its Discrimination and Harassment Policy to better address racist behavior like what was exhibited by the five students that Halloween weekend. As part of their response to requests for action in November 2019, the Administration vowed to review issues related to the Code of Conduct, an effort that was led by Dean of Students Colette Shaw.

“First of all, we realized that there was a discrimination code on the books that had no definition that went along with it,” Shaw said. During last year and through the summer, the Committee on Student Conduct worked to craft a revised discrimination code, Shaw said. F&M’s student conduct rules and process were largely outdated, which hampered the College’s ability to more effectively respond to and deal with the students wearing the racially stereotyped costumes last Halloween, Shaw told The College Reporter. Shaw said that the College has been trying to move its discipline process toward being more restorative. “The thing about the restorative process, is that it includes the people that have been harmed in helping to decide the outcome and it includes the harmers as well, in being part of making commitment to making things right.”

“If we had our restorative practices in place a year ago we could have had that conversation…but in the process that we had, it was just purely a discipline process,” Shaw said, noting that the College has come a long way since then. Part of this progress was the implementation of a bias incident reporting program, which allows students to report bias incidents and “allows the bias team to take a look at it holistically and go from there,” Shaw said.

Shaw also emphasized the importance of the self-reflective nature of the restorative process. “You have to look at what it was about F&M that made it possible for that to happen that night. Why didn’t a peer say, ‘have you thought about what wearing that means?’ So it’s not just about five students. It’s about us. It’s about our community,” she said.

Shaw told The College Reporter that she hoped the College hadn’t done all of this Halloween programming just because of the costumes. “Just because, okay great, nobody wore an offensive costume this year, that doesn’t mean we fixed racism,” she said.

Ayala also emphasized the need for the College to see the issue of Halloween and cultural appropriation through a racial lens and expressed his frustration that the Administration only reacted when students continued to push and raise issues of racism on campus. “Students are shouldering the burden when it comes to issues of racism on campus,” he said. “We shouldn’t have to be the ones continuously advocating and pushing for change.”

The feeling that the Administration has been slow to make progress on issues of race is not just limited to F&M. 

“A lot of Colleges, especially PWI’s [predominantly white institutions], are often reactionary to incidents of racial tension,” historian and author Dr. Todd Mealy told The College Reporter in an interview this weekend. “This often comes from a lack of having a racial lens on things.” 

Mealy is the founder of the Equity Institute for Race-Conscious Pedagogy and recently published a book, Race-Conscious Pedagogy: Disrupting Racism at Majority-White Schools, which includes a forward by Terrence J. Roberts, one of the Little Rock Nine, the first black students to attend classes at Little Rock Central High School in 1957. Mealy is also the author of This Is the Rat Speaking and hosted a widely-attended Common Hour in October 2019 of the same title which looked at the May 1969 black student protest at F&M.

“Freshman all come into school having had vastly different experiences,” Mealy said. “The problem…is that when you live in a bubble, those presumptions and stereotypes you hold now come on campus, and if there’s nothing done by the institution before they arrive, then things like what happened at F&M last Halloween will occur,” he said.

One of the main demands that student leaders made after Halloween last year—and something that they have continued to call for—was an increase in the College’s education and awareness surrounding issues of structural racism both at F&M and in society, especially for new students coming in during freshman orientation. 

Structural racism, according to Mealy, “exists when people at an institution are not trying to look critically at the institution they’re a part of…and everyone works together to maintain inequities, oftentimes unconsciously.” This creates innate feelings of inferiority and frustration, while also helping to create ‘dialectical racism,’ Mealy said.

“There’s this culture of communication between authority, the administration, and the campus that it’s okay to behave this way,” Mealy said of dialectical racism. “It tells those students [from underrepresented backgrounds] that their stories don’t matter as much…and it emboldens the kind of behavior that we saw last Halloween.”

Both Shaw and Hathaway stressed the fact that F&M had been engaged in making progress on DEI issues since President Barbara Altmann arrived on campus in 2018. “F&M has been doing this for a long time,” Hathaway said. “My job has been to pull them together.” Hathaway noted the importance of the College having already conducted its Campus Climate Survey, an important step in moving forward on DEI issues.

At the Diplomatic Congress General Assembly Meeting on Thursday, Hathaway gave scheduled testimony along with the other co-chairs of the Campus Climate Survey Committee, Professor Stephanie McNulty, Director of Faculty Diversity Initiatives and Chelsea Reimann, Director of the Alice Drum Women’s Center. During her testimony, Hathaway said that while the College could have probably predicted many of the Climate Survey’s findings, it was extremely helpful to have the data about what is happening on campus.

“Our students of color really have some issues with the concept of belonging, they are not feeling belonged, but that also includes our students with disabilities…and our LGBTQ population,” Hathaway said, referring to the findings of the survey. “There are issues on this campus when it comes to the concept of inclusion and belonging,” and the DEI team is looking at “what we can do to improve that for students, with a goal of three years from now doing another campus climate survey, just to see if we’ve moved this needle a little,” she said.

While many students say they recognize that the Administration has increased their awareness about issues of racism, they also say they still feel deeply hurt and frustrated that it took such widespread backlash and outrage after last Halloween to make these issues a top priority for the College.

It is the responsibility of the institutions, Mealy said, to focus not just on diversity statistics, but “also focus on the equity and inclusion part, which is the part that creates a sense of belonging.” People hurt by these instances of racial tension “want something to be done, and not just one-time conversations or short programs, they want to see those efforts be sustained,” Mealy said. “This work has to endure, it has to sustain, it has to become part of the vision and the mission of the institution.”

“The Administration is still far from understanding that this is a real issue that affects and hurts real people,” Ayala said. “I want the College to hear me. I want to work to be a leader and a voice for all of the students and people on campus who were deeply affected and hurt by the events of last Halloween.”

Junior Daniel Robillard is an Investigative Reporter. His email is drobilla@fandm.edu.

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