Stevenson College Night Followed by More Cultural Insensitivity

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“Students say Mexican food and sci-fi combo is racist” flashed across the screen on Fox News every hour two days after Stevenson College hosted an “intergalactic” themed college night, where sci-fi decorations lined the walls and Mexican food piled on students’ plates.

Comments about the event were far from few on social media platforms and local news stations. But the conversation that followed — students and newscasters debating the level of offensiveness — was irrelevant. The event offended students and was the result of an inappropriate decision made by organizers.

Cowell and Stevenson College Administrative Officer Carolyn Golz acted responsibly by sending out an apology email the day after the event. But acting responsibly is more complicated than blaming the organizers for their oversight and emphasizing that the connection between space aliens and Mexican food was unintentional.

Fox News political commentator Megyn Kelly criticized Golz, calling her a “moron,” but prefaced it with “all due respect” — a disingenuous attempt at masking an insult.

We are critical of Golz, but for differing reasons — not for sending the email, but for the contents and scope of it. The email apologized on behalf of the “program planners,” but didn’t offer much insight into how the decision was made.

She said the oversight was unintentional, but intentions do not make the action any less harmful. The email blames the organizers for cultural insensitivity and promises cultural competency training for future college night organizers. However, there are no details provided about what “training” would look like, nor a demonstrated understanding that cultural competency cannot be acquired through a single training, but a lifetime of practice.

Sent to only to Stevenson affiliates, the email should have gone to the entire student body. When students from all colleges are talking about it on Facebook, they should be made aware of the University’s response.

While Stevenson has a deeper history of cultural insensitivity and racist incidents than the other colleges — most notably a student throwing a glass bottle at a group of high school students from underrepresented backgrounds during a student-initiated outreach weekend in 2001 and students tearing down signs with quotes from black leaders at the Rosa Parks African American Theme House (R.PAATH) this year — this event is a part of a larger issue on this campus.

Just one week after Stevenson’s college night, Kresge College hosted a Mexico-themed college night, again highlighting the lack of sensitivity around cultural appropriation. The email advertising the Mexico-themed night enticed students by describing the “native dishes” that were to be served during the dinner — carne asada, pork tamales and vegan fajitas were among the dishes listed.

Though Kresge’s efforts to serve authentic Mexican food might have been comforting to those who miss home-cooked meals, the ability to create a comfortable space was ruined when program staff decided to hand out sombreros and a piñata, minimizing Mexico to stereotypes and clichés.

The online comments regarding the “inter-galactic” college night were often abrasive and accusatory of overreaction and sensitivity surrounding the event. Many students called the connection far-fetched and name-called those who were offended by the connection.

This type of reaction shuts down conversations about the larger issue of the rights and realities of people who are undocumented. Few comments were about the use of the term “aliens” to describe people who are undocumented. Describing people as “illegal” still happens in mainstream media and in everyday conversations, but the commentary that followed largely derails a critical conversation about how to create conscientious dialogue around cultural sensitivity.

A 2012 poll by the National Hispanic Media Coalition and Latino Decisions found that 1 in 3 non-Latin@s* believe a majority of Latin@s are undocumented, when data shows that less than 20 percent of Latin@s in the U.S. are undocumented. Calling someone an “alien” or “illegal” is not just inaccurate. It dehumanizes and marginalizes an entire community.

When people use the term “illegal alien,” they are describing a person as illegal — a term that implies their presence is forbidden. Regardless of the legality of a given person’s actions, a person cannot be illegal.

Stevenson’s college night is just one ignorant incident highlighting why UC Santa Cruz staff needs to be more accountable and willing to have an honest conversation about race relations on this campus and the country as a whole.

*Latin@ is used to be inclusive of both males and females, as well as those who do not identify with the gender binary.