A student at Framingham State University in Massachusetts filed a report to the Bias Incident Response Team this spring, claiming the campus had overtly disrespected Latino and Mexican Culture.
What was so offensive? For starters, the cafeteria decided to celebrate Cinco de Mayo and even put up decorations. Just a few weeks earlier, the Student Union Activities Board had thrown a similarly themed birthday party for the school mascot, Sam the Ram.
“The massive flyer had Sam in a sumbrero [sic] with Feliz Cumpleanos on it,” the student wrote in a bias report reviewed exclusively by Heat Street. “The event advertised a burrito bar and salsa lessons for some reason and if this were an isolated event I wouldnt [sic] think twice about it. I feel as though whenever an event like this is taking place we go straight to stereotypes and it is EXTREMELY offensive! If that were not enough on Cinco de Mayo the dining services team decides than in honor of a glorious victory against french colonizers in Mexico we should decorate the dinning [sic] commons. The decorations included blow up chili peppers, pancho decorations, donkey piñatas and other overtly racist and clearly ignorant decorations.”
Upon receiving the complaint on the afternoon of Cinco de Mayo, Framingham’s chief diversity officer, Sean Huddleston, immediately forwarded it to colleagues, writing, “Well. . . . we almost made it!”
Within half an hour, Huddleston had reached out to the director of dining services, forwarding the complaint. The cafeteria immediately took down the decorations, apologizing and offering to meet with the student who complained about “how we might celebrate and/or commemorate events such as this while being respectful to the particular ethnicity.”
Huddleston declined Heat Street‘s request for an interview. A spokesperson for Framingham said that Sodexo, the food-services contractor, ultimately made the decision to take down the decorations.
“Sean [Huddleston]’s Office and the Bias Incident Response Team did not make suggestions or intervene in this decision, but did share the complaint with Sodexo,” Framingham’s communications director, Daniel Magazu, says. “The university does not have a policy regarding decisions based on the comments of one individual, but when issues are brought to our attention, they are addressed based upon what we believe is in the best interest of the institution and our students.”
Heat Street reviewed this bias incident report as part of a bigger public records project looking at how public colleges and universities across the United States respond to allegations of racism on campus.
Records received from several universities have shown a high frequency of racist and sexist incidents occurring on campus, varying from racial slurs and swastikas graffiti’d on walls to outright harassment. They also reveal that celebration of national holidays like Cinco de Mayo, as well as theme parties, often elicit allegations of racism and bias.
But the records also show that students frequently report academic or social problems —they’re not doing well in a class, for example, or not getting along with a friend or roommate—as bias incidents, even when the label doesn’t fit. The reports also reveal a disturbing tendency among administrators at some universities to suppress dissent, discussion and debate of controversial viewpoints in the name of addressing bias, racism and sexism on campus.
Often, as with Framingham’s Cinco de Mayo decorations compliant, schools change to accommodate a single student claiming offense.
At Framingham, the Bias Incident Response Team met with the student complainant that afternoon, asking what his desired outcome was.
“In the future, what [he] would like most (and on behalf of other Latino students) is for Sodexo and others who would like to honor and celebrate the culture (Mexican in this case) to consult with students, faculty and staff who identify as members of that culture prior to the celebrations,” Huddleston told the director of dining services.
After the meeting, Huddleston wrote to colleagues, “For the record, ‘on behalf of all Latinos at FSU’ were [his] words. I do not believe that he can speak for them all. I reminded him of that.”
The records also show the Bias Incident Response Team corresponding about lining up a meeting with the Student Union Activities Board. It’s unclear how they responded, but on Facebook, “Sam the Ram’s Birthday Fiesta” is now advertised with a yellow balloon.
The Student Union Activities Board did not respond to a Heat Street request for comment.
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for Heat Street and is a fellow for the Steamboat Institute and the Independent Women’s Forum.