Photos Draw Anger, Apology

More than 100 assemble at Social Justice House to discuss weekend incidents

More than 100 students gathered at the Social Justice House on Monday, Sept. 14 in response to photos and comments circulated on social media allegedly showing racially offensive behavior at a Sept. 13 theme party at college-owned apartments.

A student who posted one of the photos attended the meeting, where he apologized for his behavior and offered to speak personally with anyone he had offended.

The photos under scrutiny showed students dressed in costume for an “Around the World” theme party held at 141 W. High St. One photo, posted on a male student’s public Instagram account, and since removed, showed him and another male student wearing sombreros. It was captioned, “We swear we’ve got our green cards,” and bore the hashtags #taco, #chihuahua and #tequila. Another photo posted to Facebook showed a male student in a white flannel undershirt and bandana posing with a female student in a sombrero.

Luis Cardenas ’17 posted screen shots of the two images on his Facebook page, with a message criticizing the appropriation of Mexican dress and references to immigration. By the time of the open meeting, Cardenas’ post had been shared 53 times and “liked” by more than 150 people.

“I was offended by the pictures because they not only mocked the fact that there is an immigration problem but it also mocked our culture,” said Stephanie Lopez ’18 on Sept. 15. “To see that that’s all your culture is known for on campus is just the saddest thing you’ll ever see.”

Social Justice House Manager Alejandro Heredia ’16, who moderated the meeting along with house manager Maretta Sonn ’16, said that house members had discussed the photos and comments on Sunday, Sept. 14 and that he and Sonn decided to call an open meeting. News of the meeting spread on social media and by word of mouth on Monday.

Heredia opened the meeting with an account of the weekend’s events, and then opened the floor to discussion. The first person to speak was Samuel Richards ’16, who posted the Instagram photo.

“I should have known better,” Richards said in his apology. “Whatever my intent was, it wasn’t taken that way.”

Richards said that he was “happy” with the discussion the photos had sparked but was “scared by the anger” they also provoked.

The conversation then turned to the challenges faced by people of color on campus, and the responsibility all people have to identify forms of racism.

Frieda Adu-Brempong ’16, a Social Justice House member who spoke soon after Richards, hoped that the night’s conversation would lead to progress for the Dickinson community.

“These things have been happening for a long time,” Adu-Brempong said, referring to student party themes that allegedly breed racial caricatures. “I hope that we can get to a place where it doesn’t happen again.”

Marina Butler ’17 said that she wanted more white students to correct racist behavior in social settings.

“I want to see more white people checking their friends,” Butler said. “If your friend says something ignorant, say something. Take this beyond here, check your friends and don’t think about how you will be seen [for doing it].”

Attendees also called on student leaders to bring conversations about race and cultural sensitivity to different groups on campus.

“I’m part of Dance and Theater Group (DTG), which seems like a pretty apolitical organization, but I’m going to bring this conversation [to our meetings],” said Anastasia Putri ’16.

Vincent Stephens, director of the Popel Shaw Center for Race and Ethnicity (PSC), attended the meeting and spoke about the importance of turning anger into action. He suggested passing a community-wide resolution banning theme parties.

“There’s no such thing as a good theme party,” Stephens said.

The meeting began at 8:30 p.m. and the discussion continued until almost 10 p.m., when Sonn collected email addresses from attendees and invited them to stay for a short teach-in about community organizing. About 30 students stayed behind before disbanding at close to 10:30 p.m.

After the teach-in ended and the students dispersed, Sonn and Heredia said they were pleased with the evening’s outcomes. They said they were pleasantly surprised by the large turnout, and hoped that students would carry the conversation into other spaces on campus.

“I knew this was something Dickinson needed, and I wanted to give people the space [to have this discussion],” Heredia said.

Sonn said that the email addresses she collected will be added to the email listserv for the Social Justice Coalition, a new initiative by the Social Justice House. The aim of the coalition is to create spaces for dialogue about social justice issues. Sonn said students on the listserv will receive an email invitation to a Sept. 25 coalition meeting.

“I am certain this will not be the end of this conversation,” Sonn said.

Stephens said on Tuesday that administrative offices including the Office of Student Life, the Department of Public Safety and the Popel Shaw Center are contributing to an “ongoing investigation” of the incident. The investigation is a response to Bias Incident Reports that the Popel Shaw Center received on Monday in response to the photos.

“Students are really responsible for addressing the challenges in our culture,” Stephens said. “This is not something that simply goes away…. It’s much more complicated than that. What you have is a culture that has to ask ‘how do we navigate pluralism?’ and ‘how do we hold each other accountable in our cultural and social spaces?’ What this requires is students thinking critically [about] how to organize, how to build coalitions, how to articulate [their expectations] to many different [administrative] bodies on campus.”

Lopez is hopeful that Monday night’s discussion is the first step in towards a more respectful campus culture.

“Last night’s discussion was something this campus has never seen before,” Lopez said Tuesday. “I came in ready to defend my culture and my people but I was surprised when I came out with a sense of hope for Dickinson. If just one person learned a lesson in cultural appropriation and white privilege, I would say it was productive.”

Students interested in attending the Social Justice Coalition can email Sonn at [email protected].


Correction: In an earlier version of this article, Vincent Stephens was incorrectly identified as a VP of Student Life. His correct title is Director of the Popel Shaw Center for Race and Ethnicity.