Racially Insensitive Halloween Costumes Spur Discussion Online, in Student Senate

This weekend, a photo of four CMC students and one Scripps student began to circulate on Facebook. The photo, from Halloween, showed two white women wearing stereotyped Mexican costumes — wearing woven ponchos, large sombreros, fake mustaches, and holding maracas — surrounded by three of their friends in other costumes, one of whom was ASCMC Junior Class President Kris Brackmann ‘17, holding a sign that read “sorry.” The sign was part of her costume based on Justin Bieber’s music video for his song “Sorry.” The photo began to circulate on Sunday morning after CMC junior Casey Garcelon ‘17 reposted the picture as her cover photo on Facebook with the message: “Dear Claremont community, For anyone who ever tries to invalidate the experiences of POC at the Claremont Colleges, here is a reminder of why we feel the way we do. Don’t tell me I’m overreacting, don’t tell me I’m being too sensitive. My voice will not be silenced. I’m mentally drained from being a part of this community and I’ve had enough. If you feel uncomfortable by my cover photo, I want you to know I feel uncomfortable as a person of color everyday on this campus.”

Halloween photo

At the time of writing, Garcelon’s post has been shared over 100 times by others at CMC and the 5Cs, echoing her concerns and adding their own messages. In a post on Tumblr, Garcelon later shared screenshots of her exchanges over email and Facebook messages with the women in the photo, who apologized and asked her to remove the photo, which she told them she was not willing to do. As of Tuesday morning, the Tumblr post had over 600 notes (combined likes and shares).

On Monday afternoon, another junior at CMC, Taylor Lemmons ‘17, posted an essay on her Medium page describing her experiences with racism in Claremont, addressing the hurt caused by cultural appropriation and racial caricatures, calling on all CMC students to do a better job of combatting racism, and asking Brackmann to resign as class president. Throughout the afternoon, dozens shared the article on Facebook with messages of support.

When the ASCMC Senate gathered for its 9pm meeting on Monday night, Executive Vice President Iris Liu ‘16 bypassed the regular agenda to go straight to Open Forum, in order to make time for an extended discussion of the incident and related issues. A large number of students of color attended the meeting to raise their concerns, and the discussion opened with Denys Reyes ‘16 giving a brief overview of the photo that was posted and the responses that it received — including many comments critical of Garcelon for sharing the photo. “A lot of students of color are really hurt,” Reyes stated.

Garcelon, also present in Senate, walked through what she experienced after posting the photo. She explained that two students from the photo reached out to her after her post to apologize and ask her to take it down. After she refused to do so, she received a phone call from who she believed to be an on-call dean, Diana Seder (who, ASCMC President Will Su '16 clarified at Senate, is CMC’s Director of Career Services).

Garcelon said that Seder asked if she had thought about removing the photo, and Garcelon reiterated that she would not do so; Seder told her that the women in the photo were sorry and ashamed of what they had done, and asked Garcelon to consider how she had made the women feel by posting this as her cover photo. Describing this in Senate, Garcelon noted that as a woman of color at CMC, “I felt as bad as they did or worse every day on this campus. I’m unapologetic for what I did.”

ca 3Leading up to Halloween, posters were put up across campus showing examples of culturally insensitive Halloween costumes with the message, “Our cultures are not costumes.”

In addition to the physical posters, Liu emailed the images to the entire student body before Halloween, writing, “You may have seen these posters around campus. They are part of a campaign by CMC's Title IX office to prevent cultural appropriation, slut shaming, and sexual assault this Halloween.” One of the posters showed a group of women dressed very similarly to the CMC photo, wearing sombreros and fake mustaches.

The fact that these messages were prevalent around campus prior to Halloween signaled to many students that the women in the photo should have been aware of the inappropriate nature of the costumes. In Senate, Sarah Gissinger ‘17 noted, “As many people have pointed out, we received several emails the week before Halloween saying literally don’t do this. Honestly, I don’t know what it’s going to take.” Garcelon agreed, adding, “It was very transparent not to do this.”

While the impetus for the Senate discussion was the photo Garcelon posted, the discussion also drew out other instances of racism that students of color have faced. One student who transferred to CMC as a sophomore told Senate that one of the reasons she left her original college was feeling that “as a woman of color, I had no support.” During her freshman year, “a girl wore blackface and dressed as Trayvon Martin, and the school did absolutely nothing.” Addressing CMC, she continued, “I don’t want to see the administration do nothing and not respond and say the onus is on the students. It made me leave, and I don’t want to see us lose students because of issues like this.”

Another student and woman of color described, with palpable emotion, her encounters with racism on campus: “A few weeks ago, I was spit on by a white man; my friends have been peed on by white men; someone told me my life didn’t matter, that black lives didn’t matter.” She expressed her concern that other students don’t know about or understand the hurt that students of color experience on campus. “I just need you guys to have a window into the shit that we go through here every fucking day,” she explained, adding, “you guys can’t be complicit in this anymore.”

Throughout the discussion, multiple students touched on feeling unsupported by their peers. Senior Jincy Varughese ‘16 noted that on Facebook, “the people that shared Casey’s photo were almost all students of color and women of color.” She added that “[calling for] institutional support,” by advocating for an on campus resource center, for example, “doesn’t absolve anyone in this room of their silence.”

In addition to calling on all students to support students of color, Garcelon voiced her frustrations at students of color feeling the burden of correcting the campus climate; “I’m sick and tired of having the people of color community at CMC try to address these issues and fix it,” she said, when “everyone has the tools here to know that it’s wrong.”

Another repeated refrain was the need for more institutional and administrative resources to support students of color, and frustration with the absence of those resources for current students. “I don’t see how hard it is to set up a diversity center,” said Kevin Covarrubias ‘18. “When you have Monsour [Counseling Center] backlogged and students of color facing these issues, keeping them from their studies, I just don’t see how hard it is to get that going,” he explained. “Students need that support. This is something that needs to be acted on soon.”

One student noted that the dearth of resources drives people to engage more with the other colleges in the consortium who provide more support in these areas: “A lot of students of color, me included, feel they need to outsource to the other colleges to find support and community.” Another highlighted how this absence impacts incoming students when the College strives to admit a more diverse entering class; “the administration wants to bring students of color into CMC,” he explained, “but doesn’t take into account the consequences when there aren’t resource centers” or other sources of institutional backing. “How are they going to be supported? That’s not taken into account when they want to bring diversity to campus.”

While many students advocated for a CMC resource center for students of color, noting that it would provide an important place for students to feel safe, others added that it’s equally important to address and transform hostility and prejudice towards people of color embedded in our student climate.

In terms of shifting norms, Iris Liu noted, “This is analogous to sexual assault. What I think the community now generally considers as undeniably wrong, as rape and sexual assault, that was not the case three years ago,” during her freshman year. “CMC at large and the administration have taken a stand combatting sexual assault,” Liu explained; “that is something we haven’t seen as far as supporting students of color.”

With regards to Junior Class President Kris Brackmann’s involvement with the photo, one student in Senate stated that she serves on Brackmann’s junior class council, and emotionally explained that “I took it a bit more personally” that Brackmann “didn’t even think; all she asked was, ‘crop me out of the photo.’” This comment referenced one of the messages that Garcelon shared in her post on Tumblr, from a conversation between Brackmann and a friend of Garcelon’s whom Brackmann asked to delete the photo.

In one of her messages, Brackmann wrote, “I fully understand your decision to keep the photo up, but could you please crop me out of it? It associates me with something I also think is offensive and a lot of comments have been targeted at me, by people who think that I was part of the group costume. I don’t want this to compromise my role and legitimacy as class president.”

When students in Senate raised their concerns about Brackmann’s position on ASCMC, which Taylor Lemmons also expressed in her post on Medium, ASCMC President Will Su ‘16 responded, “I don’t have any direct accountability on DOS [Dean of Students Office], but I can be accountable for the actions of ASCMC.”

Su explained that he was out of town over the weekend, and thus unable to attend Sunday night’s Executive Board meeting, but he was alerted to the situation with the photo on Sunday night, after which, Su stated, “I decided to ask Kris Brackmann to resign.” He said that he did so in person on Monday. “I’d just like to express to the student body that ASCMC finds this completely irresponsible, and I don’t think she can effectively represent students in her class.”

On Tuesday morning, Brackmann sent an email to the entire student body confirming her resignation. Brackmann wrote, in part, “As a bystander I did not assertively speak out against the costumes, despite knowing that they were disrespectful. Even worse, I associated myself with the offensive message by willingly standing in a photo with the costumes. My actions poorly represented me as someone who is supposed to represent all students. I am regretfully sorry to have been associated with this harmful incident, and after thoughtful consideration I have decided to leave my position as the Junior Class President.”

In Brackmann's email, she also asked those who have come to her defense for the photo to “stop blaming discrimination on ignorance. Please learn from my mistakes in order to best help me create a safe environment for everyone.”