This past Halloween weekend, a member of the women’s soccer team dressed in a costume depicting blackface. Since then, student leaders and administration have spoken out against the act while reports of the incident reached regional news syndicates. As a result, the women’s soccer team was not allowed to compete in the NEWMAC Women’s Soccer Championship.
The college became aware of the incident the night after it occurred through a mass email sent out by President Dennis Hanno: “It has come to our attention that someone made the choice to dress in a costume that depicted ‘black face.’” In the email, Hanno added, “This is not acceptable in this community.”
The student who depicted blackface was a member of the women’s soccer team and was reportedly dressed up as an actor from the movie “White Chicks.” Her costume won second place in a costume contest held by the Men’s Soccer Team.
“[This was] a horrible incident, a racist incident,” SGA Treasurer Shamar Mahon ’20 said.
Screenshots circulated on social media, screenshots which showed members of the women’s soccer team trying to cover up the incident in an effort to prevent anyone from “overreacting” or becoming “offended.” In a second mass email to the college, Hanno addressed the apparent collective concealment of the incident carried out by members of the team. “I am particularly dismayed that this student did not act alone, but was part of a group of other individuals who actively participated in this event and then attempted to cover it up,” Hanno stated in the email.
Hanno then went on to say that as a result of the incident, the women’s soccer team would no longer be competing in their playoff match in the NEWMAC tournament, ending their season. Aside from these punitive measures, a separate student conduct hearing is still in progress.
The blackface incident occurred despite efforts to prevent students from wearing any sort of culturally insensitive or offensive costumes. Prior to Halloween weekend, there were many club posters around campus reminding fellow students not to dress inappropriately.
According to Mahon, the incident, while extreme, was not totally unprecedented. “I was listening to some seniors and they said that every [Halloween weekend] that they have been here they have experienced some incident of the portrayal of cultural dress or even the portrayal of a different race,” Mahon said. “It seems to many that this culture of racism is quite ingrained within our institution.”
The repercussions of the blackface incident have been immense, as students, administrators and regional media outlets have all reacted to the event.
Members of the administration have both condemned the act and expressed the sentiment that the college must do better.
“We are privileged to represent Wheaton on our respective teams and as coaches, athletes and administrators, we need to make sure we are always striving to represent Wheaton as a college,” said Wheaton Athletics Mentors (WAMs) Coordinator Emily Kiablick. “Ultimately, that didn’t happen last weekend.”
Kiablick also indicated that the incident seemed to be creating a rift between parts of the student body. “Some broader concerns that have surfaced, or resurfaced, this week include the perception that athletes are ‘privileged,’ often leading to arrogant behavior and the feeling of an athlete/non-athlete divide,” Kiablick said.
Hanno stated in a mass email that he wants the college to become less divisive following this incident: “This is a difficult moment for the college and our community, and I am convinced that we can use this incident as a rallying point to build a better, more welcoming and inclusive place for all students, faculty and staff.”
There has been speculation across campus about how the women’s soccer team feels about the reactions the incident has elicited. Mahon was the first SGA executive member to talk to the team after the incident occurred, speaking particularly to the woman who wore blackface. “What I got from her demeanor was that she is very defensive, she is not really receptive to any feedback,” Mahon said. “She’s feeling, at this moment, very attacked.”
Mahon said that all parties involved need to be perceptive, and that the women’s soccer team may need to change their approach to the situation.
“They have to step away from that defensive perspective and look at it objectively,” Mahon stated. “They feel threatened because of how many people the incident has affected… I think that is why they feel so attacked, because they realize the magnitude of their actions.”
On the other hand, Director of Athletics and Recreation John Sutyak ’00 said that the team was apologetic. “I know they feel deep remorse, regret and sorrow. They know that their actions are highly unacceptable and have hurt others,” Sutyak said in a statement released by the Athletics Department.
Players on the Women’s Soccer Team, including the women who depicted blackface, could not be reached for comment.
Student clubs reacted to the incident swiftly, as the Black Student Association held a massive meeting several days after the incident. “As soon as members of the executive board heard of the blackface occurrence, we reached out to each other, and it was mutually understood [that] the Black Student Association would need to lead both the discussion and the charge for administrative change,” the President of the Black Student Association said.
BSA and other concerned students also met with President Hanno in a private meeting a day prior to the official event. This meeting, referred to as a listening session, was made public by Tsegai, who posted a Facebook livestream of the event. Members of the press, including the Sun Chronicle, were barred from attending this listening session.
BSA’s meeting was attended by many members of the school. The event in Hindle Auditorium became so crowded that students scrambled to Mary Lyon, Meneely, Knapton and Ellison Lecture Hall to watch a Facebook livestream of the meeting. The session was brief and primarily included a list of demands from BSA to the administration in response to the blackface incident and campus culture. Among the many demands was the request that all athletes and athletic staff watch the movie “Bamboozled” by Spike Lee, as well as a call for the student curriculum to be bolstered to enforce comprehensive racial systemic oppression awareness.
Students and alumni have signed BSA’s electronic petition with this list of demands.
Hanno said that “there are many great ideas and desirable goals in what has been proposed by BSA and others. I look forward to working together on them.”
According to Sutyak and Mohan, the women’s soccer team is hoping to have their own forum at some point where the campus can have a dialogue about the blackface incident. “This [discussion] must be facilitated well so that it is peaceful and just people expressing their viewpoints,” Mahon said.
The media coverage of the incident has been rigorous; the Daily Mail, Boston Globe, Boston Herald, CBS Boston, NBC Boston, Boston.com and Channel 7 News have all covered the incident, along with several others. Some worry that the media coverage may negatively impact Wheaton’s image and campus culture, but Hanno said he believes that “if we focus on our community doing the right thing, our culture and image will be shaped by that.”
In the wake of condemning the blackface incident, the administration has also sent out emails condemning violence on campus, noting that members of the women’s soccer team have received threats.
“There have been several incidents of bullying and threatening behavior, but I have not singled out any individuals or groups on purpose because I want to be clear that this applies to everyone, equally,” Hanno said. “Bullying and threatening behavior have no place at Wheaton.”
Despite Hanno’s comments, turmoil continues; troublesome incidents on campus have increased since Halloween weekend. “Unfortunately, with the incident from the [Halloween] weekend…we have had an increase in incident reports and could use the extra support,” Area Coordinator Alicia Moquin stated in a public email to Residential Advisors.
Ultimately, some students feel uncomfortable with the pace at which the administration handled the incident: “Students across campus felt that the reaction [from administration] was timid at first; [only] after angered students voiced their frustration at the listening session hosted by administration was there a strong response,” Tsegai said. “The recurring theme in students’ concerns was that students not only felt unheard and unprotected by administration, but they also doubted that there would be appropriate punitive measures taken, as this has happened almost every year.”
Students have also expressed worry that it may take a very long time for the campus culture to change. “Some people feel that change is too far to see,” Mahon said. “I think it is disappointing that the administration won’t be able to act swiftly enough to have members of my [student body] see that change.”
The outcome of BSA’s list of demands to the administration and the potential formation of a forum with the women’s soccer team are two developing matters that will be significant as Wheaton continues to deal with ramifications of the blackface incident.