Less than a week before the start of faculty frosh, the Management Undergraduate Society changed their controversial “Tribal Frosh” theme following complaints of racism and cultural insensitivity.
Much of the controversy began on August 19, when Sarah Woolf, a U3 Arts student and former Students’ Society councilor, posted a Facebook note complaining about the MUS’s racist promotional videos. In doing so, she ignited what she termed the “unofficial launch of a campaign against the MUS Frosh 2010.”
“It seems I was the first person to post this or to indicate that this was unacceptable,” Woolf said. “From there, there were many, many people who expressed great dissatisfaction with the whole thing on Facebook or through other forums.”
After reading Woolf’s post, several students wrote emails to the MUS or posted comments on Woolf’s note expressing sentiments ranging from ambivalence in the form of “I think its alright” to passionate disgust shown by comments like “SHAME AND EMBARRASSMENT” and “grossgrossgross.”
At the request of MUS President Céline Junke, Woolf met with her, MUS Vice-President Internal Aram Aharonian and frosh co-chairs Johanna Izett and J.P. Briggs, as well as several other critics of the theme on August 22 to speak on behalf of the students who had expressed dissatisfaction with the theme.
Woolf “left the meeting thinking that there wasn’t going to be much of a change,” she said, but was pleased to see the MUS Frosh website taken down later that day. The theme was changed to “Superhero Frosh,” and the MUS issued a formal apology the next morning.
“I was happy to do whatever I could to try to rectify the situation, but by no means was this anythingI did by myself,” Woolf said. “Lots and lots of people wrote [to the MUS and] called them.”
Frosh co-chair Izett explained that there was never a concern of racism during the months of planning.
“The first time we heard about [concerns of racism] was the Friday when we got an email,” said Izett. “And then the emails just came for the next three days up until Sunday night when we decided to change the theme.”
“We spent three weeks trying to decide what kind of theme we wanted,” added Izett. “We knew that we wanted to have a competition, to boost up the theme spirit, so we wanted to have something that had a sense of community and we knew we wanted four separate groups and [we thought] ‘How are we going to get them to join together?'”
“We wanted something that people could rally around,” said Aharonian. “And in hindsight, that was what we messed up on. We should have just said the blue team, red team, pink team, yellow team. We messed up on that one.”
“The goal of Frosh is to provide the best possible welcoming experience to the incoming Management class,” Junke wrote in the formal apology letter on the MUS website. In the letter, Junke also apologized for the theme and asked for forgivness from anyone who was offended by the theme.
The decision to change the theme placated many of the critics, but the debate over whether or not “Tribal Frosh” was a racist theme continued.
Andrew Doyle, a U4 Engineering student, former Engineering Undergraduate Society president and current Engineering senator, also posted a Facebook note in response to Woolf’s. In his opinion, Woolf and others overreacted to the theme.
“The main point was that while it could have turned out to be a racist event, just imitating other cultures is not in itself racist,” said Doyle. “Since so many people knew about the theme and the planning process [over the course of the summer], if it was racist it would have come out and somebody would have said something.”
Woolf, however, argued that even though no one spoke out sooner, the theme was still racist and unacceptable.
“There’s no getting around it: the frosh theme was racist,” she said. “The analogy that I used was you would not have a frosh theme that was ‘Frosh 2011: Black Face.’ You wouldn’t do that, so why is it okay to pick a theme like ‘indigenous groups around the world?'”
Paumal? Cassiday, a U3 psychology student and a K?naka Maoli, or native Hawaiian, said that he and many other native people are generally more concerned with “real world” issues. But, upon considering the Frosh theme, Cassiday said that he felt that a “Tribal” theme was racist and inappropriate.
“It doesn’t matter who it’s making fun of, whether its Maoris, Hawaiians or whoever else-the point is that it’s disrespectful,” Cassiday said. “You’re mocking a culture that has already endured so much and whose people have overcome so much and have fought for so much. It’s just like a slap in the face for us.”
SSMU President Zach Newburgh said that he is pleased about the way the situation turned out and thought the MUS was very generous in changing their theme only a couple of days before Frosh.
“I think it’s a learning opportunity for everyone who was involved in Frosh week,” Newburgh said. “I hope that when this kind of issue arises again in the future, if it does-and I’m sure it will-that the process we’ll go through in order to make sure that racism and discrimination and prejudice don’t exist on our campus is just as good as the end we want to reach.”
“We all are [pleased with the result],” added Woolf. “It’s a victory for everyone involved, for the incoming froshies who don’t have to be part of a racist event, for MUS who has shown how to take responsibility for these things, and for the Montreal academic community as a whole. It’s a small one, but it is a victory.”