Controversy over racism and cultural appropriation at Bowdoin has been reignited by a “gangster” themed party held by the sailing team last Thursday and anonymous online discussions following the incident.
Following the event, several team members were seen at Super Snack in Thorne Hall wearing costumes of stereotypical African-American accessories and styles, including hair braided in cornrows, baggy clothes and 1980s hip-hop style bucket hats. While there, they were confronted by a group of students who found the costumes offensive.
The party came less than a year after the well-publicized “Cracksgiving” incident, in which members of the lacrosse team dressed in Native American costumes at a Thanksgiving party last fall.
“People are grieving, people are frustrated, people are angry,” said Ashley Bomboka ’16, president of the African-American Society (Af-Am). “I think, especially after ‘Cracksgiving,’ a lot of people in Af-Am—and allies of the Black community at Bowdoin in general—believed that people understood that that wasn’t the right thing to do, and that wasn’t the case.”
Members of the sailing team declined to speak to the Orient.
In the week since, the event has dominated conversations in many corners of campus. Members of Af-Am, as well as other students affected by the incident, have been involved in private meetings with administrators and the sailing team. These meetings began last Friday, the day after the incident.
On Wednesday, Dean of Student Affairs Tim Foster sent a campus-wide email discussing the incident. Following the email, many people took to the anonymous social media app Yik Yak to discuss the response. That night, Bowdoin Student Government (BSG) unanimously passed a Statement of Solidarity with students “injured and affected by the incident” following a well-attended period of public comment.
During the public comment time, sailing co-captain Courtney Koos ’16 apologized for the event and said that the sailing team was working to correct its mistake.
“The intention behind the party was not to make any of our peers feel uncomfortable, and we deeply, deeply regret that that is what happened as a result,” Koos said. She added that the team is now looking for ways to educate others on campus about racial issues.
She said that this was not the first time the party had been held, though team members were not aware how the tradition had started.
Foster wrote in his email that “racial and ethnic stereotyping is not acceptable at Bowdoin,” and argued that “the most powerful and effective response is an honest, open discussion between the students who dressed as they did, those who were stereotyped, and the larger student community.”
The email did not specify what team had been involved in the incident or whether the administration would take specific disciplinary action against those involved.
This marks a change from the precedent set by Foster’s email following “Cracksgiving.” In an email to the Orient, Foster explained the different response.
“These are different situations,” he wrote. “The response to ‘Cracksgiving’ in year one and year two was education and more education. Students are held accountable for their actions whether that’s through education and/or discipline. In this case, I wanted to underscore our community values and the importance of peer to peer accountability and learning through engagement. I think the administration needs to give students the space and support to work things through.”
Olivia Bean ’17 has been in meetings with both administrators and members of the sailing team. She said that her conversations with the team have been productive.
“They stated that [hurting people] wasn’t their intention, but it didn’t matter, because the impact was that it was hurtful to people, and that they as a team want to understand what it was that they did wrong, so that instead of just not doing it they understand why what happened was wrong,” she said.
Some students expressed concerns about the administration’s response. Bomboka expressed disappointment in parts of Foster’s email.
“I wish there had been more words on what to do past talking,” she said. “I think that conversations are all well and good, but there has to be other programming that pushes you a little bit harder than a conversation would.”
Several students who spoke at the BSG meeting on Wednesday voiced similar sentiments.
“It feels very frustrating to hear that Bowdoin just needs to educate people and people just need to talk to each other more. I talk to people every single day,” said Caroline Martinez ’16.
“It’s frustrating that these conversations have been happening for a while, and they do not seem to reach the entirety of campus,” said Gibson Hartley ’16 at the meeting. “There needs to be a push, or at least a challenge, for this conversation to extend beyond the usual group.”
Some also voiced worries that the email seemed to put the onus of starting conversations on those who had been offended by the incident.
Student responses to the incident and the administration’s response have been highly varied.
Following the email, many anonymous Yik Yak users voiced opposition to Foster’s response and skepticism about the idea that the party was inappropriate or that cultural appropriation is a problem, while others pushed back.
As of Thursday night, a Facebook photo album by a current student containing screenshots of posts from Yik Yak called “Racism and Insensitivity at Bowdoin College” had been shared over 200 times.
“I guess we can’t listen to Hispanic music on taco night,” read one post.
“People on this campus just like to be offended for the sake of being offended,” read another.
“Might be expressing a minority opinion but… Gangster culture probably should be ridiculed, dishonored, and eliminated. It brings about drug use, homicide, domestic violence & intergenerational poverty,” read another.
However, sentiments like those expressed on Yik Yak were absent during the public comment time at the BSG meeting on Wednesday night.
During their comments, many students expressed disappointment about the incident and the anonymous posts that followed.
“This community is frustrating me. I know that I’m a Bowdoin student, but I don’t really feel like this is my place right now,” said Bomboka.
“I am so scared because I don’t know who’s writing all this shit on Yik Yak,” said Esther Nunoo ’17.
Koos also sought to distance the sailing team from the anonymous posts that many students found offensive.
“We are appalled and disgusted that people are saying the things that they are on Yik Yak,” she said.
Several students said that they were frustrated with conversations focusing on cultural appropriation. Kevonte Anderson ’15 said the term is not strong enough to describe what happened.
“We have to acknowledge the legacy of white supremacy in this country, and how incidents like this, if we don’t address them properly, just reinforce white supremacy,” he said.
Bomboka echoed the importance of understanding the event in terms more specific than simply cultural appropriation.
“I think cultural appropriation is a macro phenomenon, but the imitation of marginalized groups in a stereotypical manner—that’s what that was,” she said.
What Comes Next
Late Thursday night, a group of students put up signs in the entrance to the administrative offices in Hawthorne-Longfellow Library as well as Smith Union, Moulton Union and Thorne Hall imploring the administration to take more concrete action.
Some signs contained messages such as “It is not the job of minority students to educate others,” “#AStatementIsNotEnough,” and “Cultural appropriation is violence.” Others paired Yik Yak posts with the Offer of the College.
Moving forward, students affected by the incident hope it will spur lasting changes on campus.
“It’s definitely not an isolated incident,” said Bean. “I think the principles in understanding that you need to understand why this is wrong translate to other things and wider issues, and I think people haven’t quite grasped them yet.”
Bomboka said that one way to reach a greater understanding of racial issues at Bowdoin would be to make more events mandatory.
“I think that what we’ve seen at Bowdoin so far is that if you keep making these talks, these conversations, these programs optional, then you’re going to attract people who already care enough about the issues to want to do it,” she said. “And you need to infuse it in everyday life, because race programming cannot only come from multicultural life.”
Bomboka also hopes that the incident will cause students to think about wider issues.
“What Af-Am, the sailing team and the Bowdoin community should want to gain from this is not that cultural appropriation is between the perpetrator of cultural appropriation and those that are victims, but that it’s a community-wide issue,” she said.