by Laura Nash and Angela Webber
Racially offensive posters were found on campus Jan. 28, inciting responses of anger and fear, and a movement by the Lewis & Clark community to visibly unite against racism. The posters included a blackface image, as well as references to the date of Malcolm X’s assassination and ‘40 acres and a mule.’ All of the posters said, “become an African warrior” and “this is some bullshit.”
Dean of Students and Chief Diversity Officer Celestino Limas called the posters “derogatory,” and “beyond inappropriate.”
According to the student who made and hung the posters, who wished to be identified as an “anonymous person of color,” he was reacting to advertisements for the Lu’au’s haka dance. The “African warrior” posters mimicked the phrasing of the Lu’au posters, which said “become a Maori warrior” and had photos of last year’s Lu’au haka, the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team (who perform a haka prior to their matches), and a pen drawing of a Maori warrior’s facial tattoos by English explorer Captain James Cook.
The anonymous student said he looked at the advertisements and thought, “If you changed one word on the posters, from Maori to African, and the picture, people would be upset.” This student thought the call to “become a Maori warrior” illustrated a history of the US “portraying people of other cultures for entertainment.”
“I wanted to give an ‘anonymous tip’ of sorts that this was going on and I thought it should be addressed,” said the student, who wanted to make a point that “it’s stupid that we say what forms of racism are acceptable and which are not acceptable.”
This student’s intent was lost by the magnitude of the racial imagery on the images. The anonymous student hung a total of 27 posters around campus, some in vicinity to the Lu’au posters and some outside the ASLC and Multicultural Affairs offices.
“Students should be able to engage each other,” said Limas. “Now, we are left to make inferences off of a flyer. These flyers have been directed in a way that is very blanket, and this makes people feel not safe, not welcome.”
The posters contained no contact information and the student who presented them did not publicly state who he was, though he did talk to the Pioneer Log. Limas addressed the anonymity strategy. “Students are not comfortable having conversations with each other about difficult topics,” said Limas. “People think that it is easier and safer to express their ideas this way.”
Associate Dean of Students and Director of Multicultural Affairs Latricia Brand held a forum for students of color Tuesday night, where she received insight into the impact of the posters.
“For some students, the posting had a quality that made them wonder if the author was sending a message that certain groups on campus are not welcome,” said Brand. Other students at the forum said that “LC and Portland can sometimes make them feel unsafe, because expressions of racial intolerance are behind closed doors and not handled directly,” and thus are put out in a provocative way, like the posters found last week.
“Students want to have the knowledge of why these posters happened,” said Brand. Hearing from the person responsible, said Brand, could ameliorate the threatened feeling some students are feeling.
Seamus Burpee (’11) is the organizer of the haka for this year’s Lu’au, and created the “Maori warrior” posters to advertise for recruiting students to dance in the haka. He said that when he first saw one of the posters he thought “it didn’t seem to have a relation” to his. Once the relation to his own flyers had been brought to his attention, Burpee saw the “African warrior” posters as a threatening personal attack. He also critiqued the technique of “discussion:” “My e-mail was right on the poster. They could have talked to me.”
Burpee said that he acknowledged that posters might have looked like they were “fetishizing” the Maori culture, but that he takes the haka very seriously. “I explain to the guys that it is not to be taken lightly.” Growing up in the South Pacific, Burpee learned the “serious nature of these performances.” Burpee said he considers himself an ambassador of the cultures in which he has lived.
The anonymous student said he created the posters to “highlight the history of blackface,” which he said was parallel to the Maori issue. “I didn’t really want to be involved in the conversation, I just wanted people to think about it.”
The posters, according to the student, contained references to where the US “failed” in racial politics and images of people who critiqued racial relations, such as performance artist Saul Williams and Huey Newton. “The way I set it up would require someone to think about it or research it,” admitted the student, who said if he could go back, he would “still do it, but explain it more.”
“My intention was not to hurt anyone and I am really, really sorry, especially to students of color—those are the people I wanted to do this in solidarity with,” said the student.
“Out of context it was a pretty horrible poster,” said the student. And this context was lost.
“This was a good discussion that was very poorly executed,” said ASLC President Brad Elkins. “There is a responsible way to spur discussion, and this was not the responsible way.”
Limas said “punishment is premature” as an outcome if the author of the poster were discovered. “The first thing would be to have a conversation,” he said.
“What they did offended a lot of people,” Elkins said. “Regardless of its intent, what they did violated the Code of Conduct and that needs to be followed through.” Elkins referred to the harassment policy in the CoC (see box below).
The Office of Multicultural Affairs and ASLC worked to create forums to discuss the issue of race. “We’re not a racist campus, but sometimes you have to affirm it,” said Brand. “This affirmation is good to sustain what we have in our hearts and our minds.”
Elizabeth Chang (’10) organized a Sit-Out on Wednesday in response to the poster incident. The event was attended by students and administrators and was visible (and audible) to students passing by the Pamplin lawn. “The Sit-Out was intended to unite the LC community in a symbol of solidarity and show that while race is still an issue on campus, LC will not be defined by hate,” Chang told the Piolog.
The Sit-Out featured chants, and speeches by Chang and Brand as well as Danielle Fagre (’10). Fagre’s speech congratulated those attending the event. “We should all be proud of ourselves,” said Fagre. “Each one of us out here today is a testament to the support and understanding we have for one another in our community.”
Dean of the Chapel Mark Duntley has been at LC for 21 years and considers the posters unprecedented. “While offensive graffiti has taken place from time to time, and racist, homophobic, and other kinds of unacceptable words and pictures have cropped up in public places at times, I cannot recall any instances where posters were placed around campus in an intentional way like happened last week,” said Duntley.
The “African warrior” posters were found by three people around noon on Jan. 28. As soon as they were found, the posters were removed. Most were destroyed. However, at least three sets of posters were kept: one set (of the “three different flyers”) went to Campus Safety, one went to be shown to ASLC, who intended to show the posters at their Thursday forum, and another was kept for school records.