“Akon Day” party sparks campus conversation

By Sonia Lachter

On Nov. 8 the Colby student body received an email from the Student Government Association (SGA) regarding events that occured the weekend before.

“On the weekend of November 2nd, 2018, a party was thrown in downtown Waterville in celebration of what is known as ‘Akon Day,’’’ SGA stated in the email. “At this party, white students chose to dress as ‘convicts’ in orange jumpsuits, with big gold hoop earrings and big gold chains. Some also chose to write the word ‘AFRICA’ across their bodies and draw fake tears on their faces (a symbol heavily related to gang culture). There were also students who chanted ‘Africa, Africa, Africa,’ specifically in a hallway of the downtown apartments. Due to these events, students in the Colby community at wide, but specifically members of the Black community, have been heavily impacted. This is not an isolated incident. Bias incidents that target marginalized identities have historically impacted the lives of students on campus.”

This email was one of many student responses to the aforementioned “Akon Day” party. The first recorded responses to the incident can be seen in Colby’s Bias Incident Prevention and Response (BIPR) Bias Incident Log on the Colby website. Six separate reports were filed on Nov. 3 categorized under the “characteristic targeted” of “Ethnicity, Race/Color, Socio-Economic Class.” These reports all read, “Students at an Akon Day party wore costumes that involved cultural appropriation, referenced racial and ethnic stereotypes, and criminalizing black culture. For example, students were dressed in prison attire, had words like Africa and Gang written on their skin, and wore hairstyles associated with black culture.”

On Nov. 6, a report was filed under the “characteristic targeted” of “Race/Color” which described that, “A group of students believed to be associated with the Akon Day party on 11/3 (see previous BIPR reports) were confronted by students who were chanting Africa, staring at them, and circling them.”

The BIPR team consists of seven administrators, three faculty members, three students, including one SGA appointee, one Community Advisor appointee, and one sports team captain appointee. Since the 2016–17 academic year, one of the faculty members of BIPR has been Betty Sasaki, Associate Professor of Spanish and Associate Dean of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.

In an email to the Echo about BIPR’s role on campus in responding to the “Akon Day” party, Sasaki wrote that, “To clarify, I want to note that BIPR is not a disciplinary body. BIPR’s primary role is to collect, log…, and respond to bias incident reports submitted by Colby students, faculty, and staff. Much of our response work is designed to meet the needs of reporting parties and engage in an educational, remedial, and/or restorative capacity with Colby community members who are named in BIPR reports as having engaged in bias-related behaviors.”

When asked what the BIPR team receives the most reports about, Sasaki relayed that, “BIPR receives reports about a wide range of behaviors that are perceived as demonstrating identity-based bias (including but not limited to racism, homophobia, transphobia, antisemitism, sexism, classism, xenophobia, ableism, etc) and causing personal, interpersonal, and/or community harm…we receive quite a few reports of cultural appropriation, particularly around Halloween and Cinco de Mayo.”

As manifested by the BIPR reports following the “Akon Day” party, which occured the weekend after Halloween, this trend of increased cultural appropriation surrounding the holiday is noticeable to students and faculty alike. SOBLU hosts an event called “And Then Sh!t Got Real” annually. The event occurred on Nov. 7 this year, just days after “Akon Day.” As described in the Facebook event “And Then Sh!t Got Real,” “This is a chance for SOBLU members to share their experiences on and off Colby’s campus in relation to race, ethnicity, power, and privilege. It will be a night of awkward, hurtful, funny, and proud instances of race relations.”

The next day, student responses to “Akon Day” continued in an email circulated which announced a sit-in for the following afternoon. “On Nov 9th, 2018 at 12:00 PM, students will occupy Pulver Pavilion in silence for a total of 60 minutes,” the emails reads. “We ask that allies and everyone attending to wear all black in solidarity. During this time an email will be sent to Administration demanding amendments to the student handbook to add guidelines and protocols in regards to bias incidents that specifically target students of marginalized identities within the Colby community.”

Students also took to the internet to express their discontent with the participants of “Akon Day” and Colby administration. Between Nov. 8 and 19, five Civil Discourse posts addressing Akon Day and its aftermath on campus were posted, including one which contained the link to a petition. Titled, “Demand that Colby College Make Amendments to Student Handbook On Bias Related Incidents,” the Change.org petition has collected 831 signatures at the time of this article’s publication.

The petition concludes with the statement that,“Students4Change is demanding Administration make amendments to the student handbook to add guidelines and protocols in regards to bias incidents that specifically target students of marginalized identities within the Colby community. Sign this petition in support of these amendments.”

Perhaps in light of the strong student response to the “Akon Day” party on campus and online, students received an email from Provost and Dean of Faculty Margaret McFadden on Nov. 9.

McFadden wrote: “As you likely know, at a recent off-campus costume party, some students dressed in ways that were culturally appropriative and racially insensitive.”

She continued to explain that the College’s administrators, “have been working closely with the involved students this week” and that “many people have come together to reaffirm our values of diversity and inclusion.” McFadden wrote about her work as an American Studies professor and the larger cultural context of “Akon Day” and related incidents. The email concludes with an acknowledgment of Colby’s increasing diversity and the need to work towards inclusion.

She then wrote, “we invite students to talk about their concerns at a lunch discussion with senior staff leaders tomorrow, Saturday, November 10, at 11 a.m. in the Pugh Center.” As of publication, representatives of the Pugh Center and of SGA had declined to comment on this event.

The event on Nov. 10 in the Pugh Center was attended by students as well as administrators Richard Y. Uchida, Vice President and General Counsel and Secretary of the College, Matthew T. Proto Vice President and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid, Karlene Burrell-McRae, Dean of the College, and Douglas Terp, Vice President for Administration and Chief Financial Officer.

In a recent email to the Echo, Dean Burrell-McRae explained that the administration felt that in organizing the panel, “it was important to create an opportunity for students who were deeply concerned about the events and felt most harmed by them to express their experiences and desire for a resolution. And it was important for us to hear those experiences first hand and to have those experiences inform our next steps.”

Students and administrators participated in a back and forth discussion. A recurring theme of the discussion was the uncertainty of the whole situation. “We may not have all the answers that you want today,” Burrell-McRae said to students, “we may not have any.”

Later on during the panel, Burrell-McRae revealed her dread of Halloween: “I had sleepless nights the three weeks leading up to Halloween because I knew this was going to happen.” Students asked the administrators present about what actions could be taken to address the participants of “Akon Day” and the larger issues of bias and racism against minorities at Colby. “In this moment nothing has been done yet, I’m being very direct,” Burrell-McRae responded to one student.

With regards to College policies, and disciplining participants in “Akon Day” or other instances of bias on campus, she said, “I don’t see how we’re going to get to that point based on where we are with our handbook.” Indeed, in her email to the Echo, Burrell-McRae explained that the administration has “already begin meeting with students who are interested in seeking changes in the handbook,” and that they “made clear that we are open to exploring these changes and putting a process in place that will involve students to do just that.”

The consequences of the “Akon Day” party in the days since the event occured have revealed the complicated relationship between the student body and the administration, students of marginalized backgrounds and students of privileged backgrounds, and the ever-changing dynamic between all of them.