Reader 9thDistrictNeighbor and her husband are Kenyon College graduates.

She sent me a link to a story from November 21 about two Kenyon students who dressed as ghosts, were confronted by campus security, accused of racism, and ultimately apologized for being insensitive to their white male privilege.

We graduated from Kenyon in ’83, and this is not the school we attended. Kenyon has a grand history of ghost stories, but political correctness has run amok. Scrolling through the comments on the campus link is insightful and heartening–at least there are still some saner students left.

From The Thrill, the Kenyon student newspaper, College Will Investigate Sheet Incident from Last Night:

Kenyon is investigating an incident that took place last night in which two students were spotted walking campus with white sheets over their heads — according to an email from Dean of Students Hank Toutain sent out this afternoon to the entire student body. The College is also investigating Safety’s response to the incident. More below the jump.

According to Toutain, the students were spotted in Olin Library and then stopped by campus safety officers — who asked them to remove the sheets — on Middle Path. The students complied with the request, according to the email.

“At least one student witness reported being upset by the incident. The response by Campus Safety is also being reviewed,” Toutain wrote.

“In addition to this investigation, of course, and pending its results, the College is planning a response that will include community-wide conversations regarding social responsibility and sensitivity to others. Kenyon is a community that embraces diversity and respect for all of its students and employees.”

The Black Student Union has responded, sending out this email this afternoon:

In case you haven’t read the email from Dean Toutain, last night an incident occurred on our campus where two students wearing white sheets walked into the library and on middle path. Regardless of the intention of the act, it was observed by many students as racially insensitive and inexcusable.

The comment section to The Thrill argument evolved into an argument over whether an act not intended as racist nonetheless was to be condemned as insensitive; whether feelings triumphed over intent.

The two students apologized, as reported by Business Insider which carried the full letter, which reads:

Dear Kenyon students, faculty, staff, and administration,

Two nights ago, we put white sheets with painted black eyes over our heads and walked around campus. Our idea, born of Kenyon bucket-list fancy, was to pose as ghosts on a haunted campus. Our action ended up materializing many more severe ghosts—both within ourselves and our peers—than we knew existed.

In the wake of our antics, we have begun to understand that “intentions and implications” are not, as many of our peers commented at the bottom of the Thrill post reporting the incident, “two separate things”—at least not in the respectful and enlightened community that Kenyon aims to create. In the community we want Kenyon to be, individuals are not only responsible for the actions they take, but also for the effects that those actions have on their peers—all of their peers. What’s more, we should consider the effects our actions could have on others before we perform them.

That our intentions were innocent is not what’s important. What’s important is that the harmless sheet ghosts that we envisioned appeared to many of our peers as life threatening Klansmen. In a historically racist part of rural America, we still managed to overlook the implications of white sheets at night. Only in hindsight, when confronted with the visceral fear and righteous anger of peers for whom our costumes unearthed generations of violence and inhumanity, did we begin to make the connection. That the severe implications of our actions only occurred to us after the fact is an expression of unchecked privilege and uncompassionate, selfish thoughtlessness.

Another comment under the Thrill post read, “It was done as simply a college stunt that hurt no one.” This comment is utterly false. Although we did not intend to hurt anyone, this does not negate the very real feelings of threat, terror, pain, and rage we engendered in many of our peers. Indeed, it is for giving our peers cause to question their safety on this campus—feelings they have built up after years of working through justified insecurities in the face of a lifetime of unjust experiences—that we are most sorry. We could dredge the very bottoms of our hearts, scrape every ounce of apology from it, and still not have an adequate expression of remorse—but we are trying.

Part of our effort includes the recognition that this incident represents not only a personal failure on our front, but a political problem that implicates the entire campus. Because of our white, male, middle-class backgrounds, we do not live with the history of racism at the forefront of our minds. It is because of this privileged existence that the association with the Klan was not an immediate one for us. Nor, we have noticed, was it for many of our peers—mostly white. The fact that many commenters on the Thrill felt justified decrying the “one or two people who didn’t get it”—”it” being the joke we intended, the “one or two people” being students who were offended by it—is a sign that the majority of our campus does not live with the history of racism at the forefront of its mind, either. However, a majority opinion does not amount to an ethical position.

Indeed, the majority of the reactions we received the other night, as well as those posted in the Thrill comments, indicate the prevalence of privilege on Kenyon’s campus. There is nothing inherently wrong with that privilege, but when it goes unquestioned by a consideration for our peers, it becomes highly problematic. A prime example of that problem is our actions the other night. In dressing as sheet ghosts, we not only exposed our peers to the ghosts of racism that continue to haunt their worst nightmares, but also ourselves to the ghosts of privilege and insensitivity that lead to such hurtful acts.

This has been an incredibly humbling and educational experience for us. As such, we hope that it will prove to be similarly edifying for the rest of campus. Although it was primarily racial minorities who were emotionally jarred by our antics, the incident involves every member of this community. Following Thanksgiving break, as campus-wide discussions occur about the racially sensitive issues underlying our community at large, we encourage everyone to participate and thereby gain the perspective and understanding that is needed if Kenyon is to become a truly enlightened community.

We’d like to thank Dean Toutain, Director of Counseling Patrick Gilligan, and Director of Safety Bob Hooper for their guidance and support throughout this incident. We’d also like to thank the Kenyon community, friends, and especially the Black Student Union for the criticality, compassion, and emotional honesty with which they responded to this incident.

This “incident,” of course, is quite different than what happened at Oberlin, where there was a deliberate provocation led by a liberal student trolling the campus for a reaction. Also, at Oberlin the reported Klan citing turned out to be nothing more than a student wrapped in a blanket because it was cold out.

Nonetheless, the Kenyon story reflects a divide on campuses where the objective reality of an act often is less important than the sensitivities of those who are offended by it.

(Featured Image: Henri Gendreau / The Thrill)


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