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Campus responds to racist symbolism

Claire Montgomery
Senior News Writer

On Oct. 25, Dean of Students Scott Brown sent an email to inform the campus community of an investigation into a potential bias incident. In the email, he wrote, “Yesterday, a student reported seeing a half-dozen individual bananas hanging from pieces of cord in a tree near Andrews and Armington halls. There is a long and ugly history associated with the use of bananas as symbols of racist hatred … and more specifically with the hanging of bananas from trees.” Brown then invited the campus community to gather in the Babcock Formal Lounge that same day “to discuss this incident, and to learn more about the history embodied in this ugly symbolism.” Shadra Smith, associate dean of the Center for Diversity and Inclusion (CDI) stated that the Bias Incident Response Team had organized the meeting so “folks could learn and be educated more about the symbolism related to the incident and realize there is historical context that folks might not be aware of.”
Brown started by giving an update about the investigation: “In terms of the investigation, we consider it closed. The folks that were responsible have come forward immediately after the email went out.” In a separate email to the student body, Brown said that after the initial email was sent out, “two students came forward to claim responsibility for placing the bananas there and we will be addressing their involvement individually.”
After Brown informed the group of the updates pertaining to the investigation, Dr. Shannon King of the history department gave an overview of some of the symbolism associated with racially motivated hatred. First, he laid out the basis of scientific racism, saying that “scientific racism … reflected the claims of European colonizers and their American counterparts that black people were inferior to whites and others. To do this, they often compared black people to monkeys.” These images became connected to popular culture and permeated all parts of American society, King continued. “Part of the question becomes how is this connected to the past … in my mind … there is a clear connection for how white people make caricatures of black bodies.”
Dr. Pam Frese of the department of anthropology further demonstrated some of the context associated with bananas and racism.
“The banana wasn’t even indigenous to Africa or the Caribbean, it was brought by the Arabs,” Frese began. Bananas originated in “Southeast Asia, mainly in India, [and were] brought West by Arab conquerors in 327 BCE.” From there, bananas were “brought from Asia to Africa, then brought to the New World — South America and Latin America — by missionaries and explorers.” Bananas became mostly produced in areas associated with the slave trade. “Plantations are required to grow bananas. The banana plantations were planted with slave labor, were harvested with slave labor — it’s labor-intensive. You need people who could do heavy labor for very little or nothing at all,” said Frese.
From there, the conversation turned to campus culture and the importance of cross-cultural and historical education, in light of many students not initially understanding the associations found with bananas hanging from a tree. Dr. Charles Kammer of the religious studies department commented, “One of the things we clearly need to do better on campus is do more cross-cultural education. What is important, however, is for the dominant culture to take the initiative on learning and not always leave minority groups with the burden of educating [the majority]. When you have power, you have the responsibility to use it wisely and not to harm others either intentionally or unknowingly.”
“Although there is a long history of ropes and bananas used in racist and intimidating ways, we have also learned that there are many people who were not aware of its significance,” Brown added. “In general, we hear about most incidents very quickly, and this took four days for the incident to come to my attention. Many people shared they saw it, though they thought it odd, did not make any of those connections. That is why educating ourselves of this history is so important for all of us.”

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