Students, administration respond to divisive Halloween posting
For many of them, these memories resurfaced when a Halloween photo of students costumed in military garb in what some argued was a depiction of Osama bin Laden, others as a stereotypical Muslim at gunpoint, surfaced on Facebook last Wednesday.
An open solidarity forum hosted by the Muslim Students Association on Thursday offered students the chance to share their experiences with racism and discuss ideas for future prevention of acts that could be considered inflammatory.
The photo, which some students defended as a depiction of Navy SEAL Team 6 and Osama bin Laden, went viral Wednesday night and kicked off a discussion about how the University handles incidents students may find racially or otherwise offensive, an issue that the Mosaic Project was and is intended to address.
“The gravity of this matter extends much beyond the photo itself,” MSA president and senior Ishaq Winters said. “The ensuing, oftentimes hateful comments of fellow students expose wider concerns…the silence on the part of the administration and majority of our student body speaks to the systemic nature of the challenges to our university’s principles of inclusion and equality, challenges that we must address moving forward.”
The event, held in Tisch Commons, was hugely attended by members of MSA, other students and administrators.
Winters, along with Jenni Harpring, program manager for the Gephardt Institute for Public Service, served as moderators for the event. They stressed that it was meant to center on the larger context of the photo and the University’s response to it rather than the costumes themselves.
Several students from the MSA shared stories of discrimination from their childhoods and from their time at Washington University post-9/11. Some mentioned bullying, hateful comments and actual violence directed toward them and their families.
Freshman Imran Mumtaz said that he didn’t find the photo particularly shocking after growing up in the South and facing Islamophobic tension for much of his childhood but saw it as an indication for the need for more frequent discussion.
“I strongly believe that the people involved in the image are college students just like us, and we’ll consider that they made a mistake. At the end of all of this, we need to accept that we need to forgive them,” Mumtaz said. “What we need to take away from this is that we need to not just have one event and say, ‘I recognize these issues exist. I tried to commit to change by going to a solidarity forum.’ Yeah, great. But we need to realize that we need to have these discussions every day.”
Non-Muslim students also shared their responses to the post and their opinions about possible avenues for improvement in prevention and responses. Some expressed concerns about a lack of empathy and a sentiment of resignation toward racism within the community as well as the absence of a simple way to report and handle situations of racism and bias.
Senior Gaby Dinkin, chair of the Diversity Affairs Council and leader in the Mosaic Project, responded to students’ concerns by saying that the Bias Response System would be released in the spring semester.
Many students left the event feeling very impressed by the way the MSA conducted the event.
“I thought that [the MSA] handled it really well. They were definitely open to everyone voicing their opinions, and I like how they made it very clear that this was for solidarity, not just as a response,” freshman Shivani Desai, a member of the DAC, said.
Following the remarks of several students, Vice Chancellor for Students Sharon Stahl expressed her apologies for the delayed reaction to the event.
“I am the person, the only person, to whom this posting was sent on Halloween; I made a grave mistake in not responding sooner than I did. I deeply regret that,” Stahl said. “If I could go back and undo this, I would, but I can’t, so I have to accept the responsibility of my mistake. I apologize, and I hope that moving forward you will be able to find it in your hearts to give me that grace.”
After Stahl’s apologies, Provost Holden Thorp committed to improving the response to such events in the future.
“I think that in the future, as soon as anyone in the administration—that goes from housing all the way to the chancellor—hears of an incident where a student doesn’t feel safe, that it needs to get reported up the chain as quickly as possible,” Thorp said. “We need to develop a better understanding of how that needs to be done, and we will.”