This past Thursday, members of Bowdoin’s sailing team held a "gangster" themed party. The team’s party, and its theme, became public knowledge upon their entrance into Super Snack. The team’s attire included baggy pants, jerseys, gold chains and 80’s style LL Cool J hats. One member of the team had his hair braided into cornrows.

I am naturally tempted to embark on a furious rant, but I have decided to instead rein in my frustration and attempt to offer generosity. To those who do not yet understand why the sailing team’s party theme is unacceptable: I am perplexed by you, but I do not resent you. In the aftermath of this incident, however, you need to learn.

Cultural appropriation, in the context of this column, refers to the adoption of one culture’s aspects by members of another culture. An example of this would be if I, an African-American, wore a Native American headdress as part of a costume for Halloween. Though I happen to be part Native American, I do not identify with this culture and know little to nothing about the meaning behind the headdress. By donning this headdress, I would be taking part of Native American culture and turning it into a trendy, meaningless costume. My actions would misrepresent Native American culture and would draw upon stereotypes in doing so. Unfortunately, my good intentions would probably not console an offended party goer who sees a distorted replica of their culture worn as a costume.

If this situation seems uncomfortable, one can only imagine the friction that arises when power dynamics come into play. If my wearing a Native American headress would justifiably disturb someone who identifies with that culture, how must marginalized groups feel when members of the dominant culture “costume” the culture of the people who have been systematically oppressed by that same dominant culture? That is exactly what happened when a team of mostly white students left their dorms dressed as gangsters.

I’ve heard a number of justifications for the sailing team’s party theme. Some say that the event should not upset Bowdoin’s black population because they weren’t mocking us—it was just a costume. Others say the student donning cornrows was dressed as Riff Raff, a white rapper. Proponents of this justification claim that the incident cannot count as cultural appropriation if the imitated figure is white. Furthermore, some students have fully discounted the issue of cultural appropriation as a whole. Unfortunately for these defenders, all of these views are shortsighted.

The Riff Raff justification is nothing short of comical, as Riff Raff is essentially the physical embodiment of cultural appropriation. The worldwide controversy surrounding Iggy Azalea, a white performer who is continuously accused of appropriating black culture, could easily apply to Riff Raff. The argument that this student’s cornrows are justified by Riff Raff’s race is moot. Let me be direct: cornrows are not just a hairstyle. Cornrows, braids, twists—they are not just hairstyles. The earliest depiction of African cornrow braiding dates back to 500 B.C. Intricate hair designs have long been an integral part of African culture and that tradition came to America on the slave ships. These hairstyles have served as a means of maintaining the often kinky, coily texture of black hair. Not only are these hairstyles a part of black culture, but they are also a source of discrimination. Many workplaces ban these hairstyles and some even ban Afro-textured hair as a whole. They are not just hairstyles and they are most certainly not costume accessories.

As for the sailing team’s intentions, I know that they were not mocking the black members of this community; no black person on this campus fulfills the stereotypes that costumes such as theirs uphold. However, whether the involved members of this team realized it or not, their theme directly took negative stereotypes of the black race and made them into a costume. The appearance and dress of black men and women has been both scrutinized and debased for centuries. Furthermore, in countless cases, their dress has been used to justify death.

In fact, one of the most dangerous black stereotypes is that of the “thug.” A quick Google search of this word returns photos of angry-looking black men, many with cornrows, holding guns, money and gold. This trope has resulted in society’s continuous distrust of the black man—a distrust that has become an expected, and even accepted, part of black men’s experiences in America. A black boy, such as Trayvon Martin, cannot even walk home with his life intact because his “gangster clothing” (i.e. hoodie and brown skin) signified his criminal intent. Members of the dominant culture cannot try on these stereotypes for fun then stand idly by while these same harmful stereotypes end lives.

To the Bowdoin community: stop mocking the members of the community who are upset by the sailing team’s actions. Jokes about how Halloween is the cultural appropriation of goth/magical/satanic culture are not funny, and I have a very broad sense of humor. These “jokes” simply reveal a lack of understanding of the afflictions of people who are not like yourself. You do not have to be a student of color, queer, low-income, disabled, or a member of any other marginalized group in order to put your own experience aside for five minutes to try to understand the experiences of others.

I am disappointed for the multitude of  prospective students of color who witnessed the Super Snack debacle. If offered admission to Bowdoin, many will likely choose to take their talent and intellect elsewhere. I am frustrated for the black first years whose first semesters have been tainted by such a level of disrespect. My anguish is not only directed towards the sailing team, but towards the community at large. The jokes and eyerolls hurled at those upset by this incident have made me question what I usually consider to be a compassionate community. Those pursuing a liberal arts education supposedly do so because they seek to understand. Sadly, that is the opposite of what I have witnessed on campus this week.