On Saturday, two members of Bowdoin College’s student government will face impeachment proceedings. What heinous transgression did they commit? Theft, plagiarism, sexual assault?
Nope. They attended a party where some guests wore tiny sombreros.
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. (None of the disciplined students whom I contacted wanted to speak on the record; Bowdoin President Clayton Rose declined an interview and would not answer a general question about what kinds of disciplinary options are considered when students commit an “act of bias.”)
Other students closed ranks, too.
The school newspaper editorialized about attendees’ lack of “basic empathy” and placed the event in the context of two other controversially themed parties from the past two years: a “gangster party” (at which some students showed up with cornrows and gold chains) and a racially insensitive Thanksgiving party (where some dressed as Pilgrims and Native Americans).
Within days, the Bowdoin Student Government unanimously adopted a “statement of solidarity” to “[stand] by all students who were injured and affected by the incident,” and recommend that administrators “create a space for those students who have been or feel specifically targeted.”
The statement deemed the party an act of “cultural appropriation,” one that “creates an environment where students of color, particularly Latino, and especially Mexican, students feel unsafe.” The effort to purge the two representatives who attended the party, via impeachment, soon followed.
To outsiders, as well as some students on campus, all this fuss over a “tequila party” may seem a little extreme.
Probably most 21st-century Americans would agree that wearing, say, blackface or Native American war paint is generally outside the accepted bounds of taste, civility and human decency.
But tequila and tiny sombreros? I am not of Latino heritage, and I wouldn’t deign to tell those who are what they should or should not be offended by, especially on a mostly white campus. But even Bowdoin’s Latino students are divided about the propriety of the party and ensuing punishments.
One student of Guatemalan and Costa Rican heritage, freshman Brandon Lopez, pronounced the whole kerfuffle “mind-boggling” and called the disciplinary consequences a “travesty,” especially in light of the dining hall’s Mexican night a week later. (Lopez was invited to the party but could not attend because of baseball practice, he said.)
Such divisions on campus are unsurprising. Unlike with blackface, there does not seem to be any sort of settled social norm about the offensiveness or inoffensiveness of sombreros. Go to Chili’s, Chevys or other Mexican and Tex-Mex restaurants, and you’ll likely find similar decor and garb.
If your litmus test for the suitability of a party theme is something like, “Could this plausibly be a national chain restaurant?,” then a “tequila party” probably seems safe.
The school’s reaction seems especially arbitrary when you learn that — on the very same night of the “tequila party,” just across campus — Bowdoin held its annual, administration-sanctioned “Cold War” party. Students arrived dressed in fur hats and coats to represent Soviet culture; one referred to herself as “Stalin,” making light of a particularly painful era in Slavic history.
What principle makes one theme deserving of school sponsorship and another of dorm expulsion? Perhaps race is the bright line, but not long ago people of Slavic heritage weren’t considered white either. Does intent matter? What about distance (geographic or chronological) from the culture being turned into a party theme?
These are worthwhile questions, ones tailor-made for academic debate. But they are also ones that Bowdoin’s students — like students on other campuses roiled by cultural appropriation controversies — now avoid discussing publicly for fear of being labeled a bigot. Many have instead taken to Yik Yak, an anonymous social media platform that the administration has repeatedly urged them to abandon, because anonymity lends itself to ugliness.
But this necessary conversation has no place else to go so long as colleges remain unsafe spaces for free and open dialogue.