Campus ‘tequila’ party draws national attention

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BRUNSWICK — What started as a party at a Bowdoin College apartment one night in February was, by early March, being discussed on the opinion pages of a national newspaper.

College students’ and officials’ responses to a “tequila”- themed party have struck a deep nerve, igniting a debate over cultural appropriation and how an academic institution should respond to alleged offenders.

At issue is a party that took place Saturday night, Feb. 20, at Stowe Hall, a college-owned residence named in honor of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

According to an email invitation obtained by the college newspaper, the Orient, hosts sent out a message saying the party was “tequila”- themed, and that “we’re not saying it’s a fiesta, but we’re also not not saying that 🙂 (we’re not saying that).”

Afterwards, pictures surfaced on Facebook showing some party-goers wearing tiny sombreros.

At a Wednesday, Feb. 24 meeting of the Bowdoin Student Government, several students, some of Mexican or Mexican-American descent, expressed “exhaustion and frustration,” saying that the “tequila party” was part of a string of incidents of ethnic stereotyping on campus, the Orient reported.

Last October, a “gangster” themed party thrown by the sailing team prompted widespread discussion and protest on the campus. In fall 2014, the lacrosse team’s “Cracksgiving” party at a house off campus resulted in disciplinary actions against individual students after some wore Native American attire.

“What happened last weekend completely distorted what I stand for, what I embody and what I fight for. That was wrong, especially in light of what happened last semester,” said Bill De La Rosa, a senior, at the Feb. 24 meeting.

The student government passed a statement condemning the party, and recommended the administration address incidents of bias more quickly and develop a standardized process for punishing students involved. It also recommended that the college’s academic affairs office play a role in punishment by mandating academic work in certain subject areas for offending students, according to the Orient.

At the next week’s BSG meeting on March 2, three student government members introduced articles of impeachment against two other members who reportedly attended the tequila party.

The two members, both sophomores, allegedly violated the spirit of a “statement of solidarity,” which was unanimously passed by the BSG after the gangster party in October, by attending February’s “tequila” party.

They also allegedly violated the BSG’s nondiscrimination policy, and committed “injurious actions” towards other members of the student government, according to the impeachment articles.

The Orient also reported that one of the party’s hosts has been placed on “social probation” for a year, and cannot attend two annual social events this spring. She also must participate in an “educational program” and “active bystander training,” the unnamed host told the paper. Finally, she must move from her current residence in Stowe Hall to a different campus dorm.

A different unnamed sophomore who attended the party, and was photographed wearing a sombrero, told the Orient that he had been placed on social probation until next fall without ever meeting with a dean.

On March 3, Catherine Rampell, an opinion writer for the Washington Post, penned a column titled “Political correctness devours yet another college, fighting over mini-sombreros.”

Referencing the impending impeachment proceedings, she called the school’s reaction to the party “arbitrary.”

She argued it was especially arbitrary “when you learn that — on the very same night of the ‘tequila party’ … Bowdoin held its annual, administration-sanctioned ‘Cold War’ party. Students arrived dressed in fur hats and coats to represent Soviet culture; one referred to herself as ‘Stalin,’ making light of a particularly painful era in Slavic history,” she wrote.

“What principle makes one theme deserving of school sponsorship and another of dorm expulsion,” she added.

Bowdoin President Clayton Rose sent an email the next day to college students and alumni addressing the “commentary in the press and social media about a tequila party on campus and the reactions of students and the administration.”

In it, he stressed that “context matters,” writing that “over the last year or two we have had several incidents where students have engaged in racial and ethnic stereotyping.”

He did not comment on specific punishments or the impeachment proceedings. But, he wrote, “in the context of the serious campus discourse about race, ethnicity, and identity that has been ongoing this year, actions in … social settings that caricature groups, that simplify a culture to some coarse or crude sense of its reality … can have a profound effect on those in our community who identify as part of these groups.”

On the same day, the Orient reported that the impeachment proceedings, initially scheduled for Saturday, March 5, would be postponed until the impeachment process could be fully defined.

Also on March 4, Washington Post columnist Rampell published another piece, writing that at Bowdoin’s alumni reunion last summer, students and alumni took pictures in a photo booth wearing school-provided sombreros.

Bowdoin posted one of those photos to its official Facebook page.

Walter Wuthmann can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or wwuthmann@theforecaster.net. Follow Walter on Twitter: @wwuthmann.

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Brunswick/Harpswell reporter for The Forecaster. Bowdoin College grad, San Francisco Bay Area native. Follow for municipal, school, community, and environmental news from the Midcoast.