Getting Beyond Offensive Costumes

Students of color at Franklin & Marshall College say culturally insensitive and racist Halloween costumes worn by athletes are part of deeper racial problems on campus.

November 13, 2019
 
Kayla Cottiers/Hangqi Zheng
Franklin & Marshall students hold a sit-in during a basketball game on Nov. 8.

Students of color at Franklin & Marshall College are drawing the line on racism on campus.

They've held several high-profile protests to express their frustration with a troubling racial climate at the Pennsylvania college that they say has been tolerated for far too long. They've also sent a clear message to administrators: we're fed up and we're holding you accountable.

The students' concerns boiled over into protests and rallies last week after several athletes from the men’s basketball and soccer teams dressed up in racist and culturally insensitive costumes for Halloween, LancasterOnline reported. The costumes depicted Hispanic, Asian and African stereotypes. Some students wore thick black mustaches and sombreros and took photos, many of which were posted on social media, posing as mascots for José Cuervo, a popular brand of Mexican tequila. Another student dressed in a pointed hat with a ring of soy sauce packets around his neck, and one wore a dashiki, a traditional African garment. These types of costumes have cropped up regularly on Halloween at various college campuses across the country and are a constant source of controversy and anger.

The students who wore the offensive costumes have “expressed remorse for their actions and are in the process of identifying opportunities to teach others from their mistakes so there is broader cultural understanding and sensitivity," said a letter to the campus signed by President Barbara Altmann and other college administrators The college is now determining disciplinary measures as part of the student code of conduct process, the letter said. The athletes apologized during a college forum on Nov. 6 at which students of color gathered to express their frustration with the actions of their peers and the college’s handling of past racist incidents, said Trinity Tran Nguyen, a sophomore who is on the executive board of the Asian American Alliance, a student group.

“I felt that with the perpetrators coming in, it was them invading a safe space,” Nguyen said of the forum. “They did apologize, but I don’t think that’s enough. How many games are they going to be benched for? Benching them one game, is that enough? What are the coaches going to do; what is the athletic department going to do?”

The disciplinary measures that the college is pursuing are between the offending students, F&M and the college’s athletic department, said Peter Durantine, the college’s director of media relations.

“We don’t tolerate any racist actions or comments,” Durantine said. “When it’s brought to our attention, we address it.”

But the offended students view the incident as a reckoning for the college’s “lack of consequences for racist actions” in the past, groups that represent minority students on campus said in an open letter to the college earlier this week. The letter cited several other incidents of racism within the past three years.

The letter, which was published in F&M’s student newspaper, the College Reporter, noted that students wore racist Halloween costumes for four years in a row without consequence because the college failed to act. It was signed by 10 student organizations, including the Asian American Alliance, Mi Gente Latina and the African and Caribbean Association.

“It happened in 2016. In 2017. In 2018. And again in 2019,” the letter said. “Those are just the past few years. It should be noted, however, that students of color at F&M have dealt with racism on this campus since 1946. There were protests and sit-ins 50 years ago and there have been protests and sit-ins in the last three days.”

F&M’s current student population is 53.5 percent white, 4.7 percent Asian American, 6 percent African American and 10 percent Hispanic or Latino, Durantine said. More than 21 percent of students are international students, who are primarily from China, Nguyen said.

Students led a sit-in last Friday that disrupted the start of a men's basketball game. They occupied the court and forced officials to postpone the game, ABC27 reported. Nguyen, who was at the sit-in, said as soon as the national anthem concluded at the game, students took to the court and were booed and jeered at by spectators, some from the visiting York College.

“We remained silent because we didn’t want to cause any reactions that would cause harm,” Nguyen said. “We just sat there and said, 'we’re not going to get off this court until the game is canceled.' Parents were saying we should be ashamed of ourselves because of how long they drove to get there.”

Chelsea Reimann, director of the college's Alice Drum Women's Center and LGBTQ Student Life, joined the students as they sat on the court, Nguyen said.

“That was the first moment where we felt like the school listened to us.”

Todd Mealy, an adjunct history professor at Dickinson College​, said F&M has a deep history of racism on campus and students of color fighting against it dating back to the Black Power movement in the late 1960s. Mealy authored This Is the Rat Speaking, a book about the 1969 uprising of black students at F&M to end discrimination in the classroom and social spaces of the college.

Mealy believes it usually takes a significant event -- in this case the racist Halloween costumes -- to bring cultural and racial awareness to white students who have been taught throughout their lives to be “colorblind” by their parents, friends, the media and other authority figures. White students’ “willful ignorance” about racist behavior is especially prevalent at primarily white institutions and is strengthened when university and college administrators do not adequately discipline students for racism, he said.

“What the students at F&M are voicing now is that there’s a culture of dialectical racism that influences the actions of students to mock and intimidate students of color on campus,” Mealy said. “It sounds like the climate there among the student body is more like a colorblind body, where when informal race conflicts are found on campus, a conversation doesn’t take place.”

Mealy visited campus on Oct. 25 to discuss his book on the 1969 movement at F&M and said students shared stories about racist interactions with their white peers. The administration is aware of the climate at F&M and has paved a “sympathetic path” forward to address it following the Halloween costume incident, he said.

“As long as the students are heard, I think there’s going to be some positive outcomes that come from this,” Mealy said.

Administrators pledged in the letter to the campus that the college will hire a chief diversity officer to support students of color on campus and will create a bias reporting system where students can direct their concerns. The college is also planning to complete a campus climate survey by Nov. 15, which will help administrators “make informed choices” about how it addresses diversity and inclusion, according to statements from administrators. Forums on campus for students to express their ideas to administrators will continue, the letter said.

But the letter from students of color said there is much more left to be done. They demanded workshops on diversity and inclusion for new students during orientation, racial awareness training throughout all departments, a campaign specifically directed at stemming racism on athletic teams and Greek life organizations, and ongoing transparency from the Office of Student Life as it deals with reported incidents of racism.

“What we need to see are resources, not just all talk,” Nguyen said. “We want the school to be transparent. The campus culture is not going to be changed overnight, but there needs to be some consequences and written policy that they can point to and say ‘that’s wrong.’”

Altmann is expected to respond directly to the students' letter today, according to a message she send students on Sunday.

“Let me say up front that as Franklin & Marshall's president, I commit to you that the rally, protests and conversations will generate actions taken by the college to represent our best selves and our values as a community,” Altmann said. “I have heard your frustration and impatience for change. We will not miss this opportunity to cut through complacency, ignorance, insensitivity and racism. I firmly believe that the energy of this week will help to launch us to a better place.”

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