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Celebrating culture is not inherently insensitive

Right before spring break, I read an article in the Bangor Daily News (BDN) about several Bowdoin College students being punished by the school administration for attending a “tequila themed” birthday party back in February. According to the article dated March 4, two members of the student government present at the party were facing possible impeachment. The reason shocked me: they were in trouble because they’d worn sombreros to the party.

It seems that Bowdoin has seen problems like this before, once for a “Cracksgiving” party held November 2014 and later for a “gangster-themed” party held last October. In the case of the former incident, 14 student athletes dressed as American Indians and attended a Thanksgiving party at an off-campus student housing complex referred to by students as “Crack House.” In the second incident, several students appeared in the college dining commons after leaving an October 2015 “gangster” party wearing baggy clothing, gold chains and cornrows.

Racial stereotyping was the issue at stake with these two incidents then, just as it is with the more recent “tequila-themed” birthday party. According to a second article in the Portland Press Herald also dated March 4, email invitations to the “tequila party” did not mention sombreros or encourage their appearance in a dress code of any sort; invites stated the theme as “tequila, so do with that what you may. We’re not saying it’s a fiesta, but we’re also not saying that.” Students were reported to have been drinking tequila and some were wearing sombreros. Organizers of the party as well as the two members of student government who attended are facing backlash for wearing the sombreros – what some are calling “racially offensive” hats.

Bowdoin College student Giselle Hernandez wrote an article for the Bowdoin Orient explaining why she took offense to the party: “My family wears sombreros,” she wrote, “not as ridiculous props but as a sign of a proud heritage and fun customs. My uncles have mustaches and wear boots, belts and hats sometimes because it is their fashion.”

I understand this is a sensitive subject. But I have to wonder where society is going to draw the line with our “political correctness.” You cannot walk down the street these days without offending someone for something you had zero intention or awareness of. I don’t think those Bowdoin College students held a “fiesta-themed” birthday party so that they could trivialize or ridicule Mexican culture. People in the south — Mexicans, Mexican Americans, Americans, tourists — wear sombreros because the climate is hot and because the hats help to keep them cool. I understand that sombreros are part of Mexican and Mexican-American culture, but I don’t think that wearing one has to be indicative of racism.

Why are people so quick to jump to offense when it comes to issues like this? Why is a ombrero worn by someone who is not of Mexican heritage seen as a “ridiculous prop?” Sombreros exist. Sombreros are real. Sombreros can be worn by anyone seeking solace from the heat of the sun or by anyone wanting to celebrate the customs of a culture that is very different from their own. Isn’t it sort of neat that a group of kids in cold, snowy Maine would want to hold a party that is themed around a warmer, sunnier climate and around a different culture?

The BDN article also mentions that on the same night of the “tequila” party at Bowdoin, a second, school-sanctioned “Cold War” themed party was also held. Students “arrived dressed in fur hats and coats to represent Soviet culture.” This party did not receive any backlash. Think about this for a second. Different cultures exist: Soviet culture, Mexican culture, Native American culture, African American culture. If acknowledging, highlighting and celebrating those differences between cultures is seen as racism, then how are we ever going to be able to talk to one another without offending someone? Why does it have to be seen as offensive rather than a celebration to try to live, dress, eat, dance and drink like someone different from yourself?

Let me end with a question. How many of us just a few short days ago dressed in green and wore hats that said “Kiss Me I’m Irish?” How many of us who are not of Irish heritage drank Jameson’s and cooked boiled dinners because it was St. Patrick’s Day? Let’s not be selective in the ways we choose to take offense or in the directions in which we point fingers.

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