Tales From The Safe Space, Part 5 – Return Of The Sombrero Scandals

Sombreros - Cultural Appropriation

The selective outrage at supposed acts of “cultural appropriation” on university campuses takes proactive offence-seeking to a dismal new level

There is no article of clothing more likely to make a British or American university administrator break out in a cold sweat today than the sight of a sombrero on campus. Because as we all know, wearing a sombrero when not of Mexican origin is a hateful and violent act of cultural oppression, second only to donning the white robe and prancing around a burning cross.

In the UK, sombreros caused a stir last year when the University of East Anglia took it upon itself to ban and confiscate hats handed out to students by an off-campus Mexican themed restaurant. Possessed of an oversensitive racism detector which seems to jerk violently from “OK, I suppose” to “Hitler! Hitler!”, the UEA felt that the sight of non-Mexicans wearing sombreros was “discriminatory” and “stereotypical”, thus justifying their tyrannical dress code.

One might think that sombreros would at least be acceptable at a tequila party, but this too is now quite intolerable for the New Age Censors, as several unfortunate students at Bowdoin College, Maine, recently discovered to their cost.

The Washington Post reports:

Two weeks ago, some students threw a birthday party for a friend. The email invitation read: “the theme is tequila, so do with that what you may. We’re not saying it’s a fiesta, but we’re also not not saying that :).” The invitation — sent by a student of Colombian descent, which may or may not be relevant here — advertised games, music, cups and “other things that are conducive to a fun night.”

Those “other things” included the miniature sombreros, several inches in diameter. And when photos of attendees wearing those mini-sombreros showed up on social media, students and administrators went ballistic.

College administrators sent multiple schoolwide emails notifying the students about an “investigation” into a possible “act of ethnic stereotyping.”

Partygoers ultimately were reprimanded or placed on “social probation,” and the hosts have been kicked out of their dorm, according to friends.

Consider just how fascistic and totalitarian the concept of “social probation” is. And yet this is apparently a routine form of punishment at Bowdoin College, meted out to anybody who transgresses the strict, often post-hoc lines which are drawn to mark out unacceptable speech and behaviour for fully grown adults.

(The college immediately clammed up and refused to answer journalists’ questions in the aftermath of sombrero-gate, so precisely what is involved in “social probation” is not fully clear – but one can reasonably assume that it involves attending the same kind of Identity Politics re-education classes that have sprung up elsewhere. The student handbook makes reference to restrictions on “off-campus study” and the infantilisation of students by informing their parents of any misdeeds).

The Bowdoin Student Government (the student union) released a portentous declaration following the terrible sombrero incident, announcing:

WHEREAS, the Assembly reaffirms its adherence to a definition of cultural appropriation as a power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systemically oppressed by that dominant group, perpetuates racist stereotypes, and/or misrepresents people’s culture;

WHEREAS, on Friday, February 20th, 2016 members of the student body organized a “tequila party”, during which students appropriated aspects of Mexican culture;

WHEREAS, this act of cultural appropriation is offensive for the previously stated reasons, is disrespectful, creates an environment where students of color, particularly Latino, and especially Mexican, students feel unsafe, and contradicts our goal to refine the education of students in an inclusive residential community;

[etc. etc. – you get the idea]

The statement then goes on to make the predictable list of “recommendations” (underscored by implicit threat of interminable protests in the event of non-capitulation) which we have come to expect, namely:

Recommend, that the administration should more immediately acknowledge incidents of this nature, and it must acknowledge not only their occurrence but also the deep hurt that students may be feeling immediately following such acts.

Further Recommend, 

That the administration must make clear to students, well in advance, their commitment to creating a supportive space for students who have been or feel targeted, for as long as students deem necessary.

Further Recommend,

That the administration must create a space for those students who have been or feel specifically targeted.

Further Recommend,

That the administration must create a separate space open to other students for discussion, support, and processing of the incident.

In other words, it was not enough that their well-trained lapdog university administrators immediately rushed to highlight and condemn the incident, and mete out “social probation” punishments on fully grown adults for engaging in harmless activity at a social event. This is now the bare minimum. What the university should have done additionally is to explicitly acknowledge the deep, searing, life-altering injury sustained by students who felt that their culture was being mocked, belittled and somehow appropriated and marginalised at the same time.

But this pales in comparison to Bowdoin College’s failure to provide multiple safe spaces following the traumatic event – one for students who were (or who felt) “targeted” by the wearing of mini sombreros, and another for students who weren’t affected in the least, but who still might want a well-appointed room with board games and puppy dog videos so that they can have a good, validating cry about the whole thing.

Two safe spaces – the Hierarchy of Oppression works a bit like airline lounges, with one reserved for first class passengers and one for business class and those who purchase day passes. Very important.

And of course:

Further Recommend,

That the Office of Academic Affairs mandate an academic or experience in the classroom for those involved in such incidents.

Further Recommend,

That the College develop processes for punitive measures to be undertaken against those involved in such incidents.

Further Recommend,

That the College remain cognizant of the time and academics of students of color following such incidents and take appropriate measures to ensure their academic, mental, and social wellbeing.

There’s the punishment bit. Of course it is not enough for those whose delicate psyches were injured by encountering something with which they disagreed to be comforted and fawned over in their imaginary distress. No, those who transgress in thought, word and deed must suffer the consequences – in the case of Bowdoin College, an “experience in the classroom” would seem to hint at a form of public shaming ceremony.

And finally we have the cautionary shot across the bows of the college, warning administrators that students should not have their vital social activism curtailed by onerous academic demands, and that the university is on the hook for their “mental and social wellbeing”.

Once upon a time – if the legends are true – people went to college to learn, and not simply to exchange one set of parents back at home for another set of overbearing auxiliary parents in the form of ever-watchful university administrators. And yet increasingly, universities are devoting more time catering to their students pastoral needs than their academic rigours, either reactively (after being bullied and bossed around by student mobs) or proactively (by professors and administrators too craven to stand up to said mobs).

Giving in to these petty campus tyrants only encourages them to come back with even more absurd demands. So if student activists are absolutely insistent that university authorities tend to them as though they were children, then colleges should begin administering tough love and discipline as well as obsequious hand-holding.

There may be a time and a place where people need to be monitored to ensure compliance with a dress code, and placed in detention (or “social probation”) for bad behaviour. But it’s called middle school, not college or university.

And any students who have genuinely failed to master Human Interaction 101 – and still require an external authority figure to mediate their interpersonal affairs by the time they reach the age of eighteen – should seriously stop and consider whether they are cut out for higher education.


Safe Space Notice - 2

Top Image: The Tab – “Sombreros banned from Freshers’ Fair

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