Over the weekend, Dickinson College became the latest institution of higher learning to come under fire over its handling of a student who dressed up as Colin Kaepernick for Halloween.
While the debate rages on over whether dressing up as Kaepernick is considered racist or a form of blackface, it's pretty clear that the Caucasian student in question has brown smears on his face from make-up. What makes the display far more offensive is that a fellow student is holding a gun to Kaepernick's head while he takes a knee. A Dickinson College spokesperson told the Washington Examiner in an email that the gun was a "toy" and the investigation is ongoing.
Objectively and as an alum of the school (I graduated from Dickinson College with a bachelor's degree in 2009), it's a sickening display. And if I were the parent or guardian of any of these individuals involved, I would pull them out of school.
The main point that can be made is if a photo of someone dressing up in blackface to mock the main proponent of a protest against police brutality and desire for criminal justice reform with a gun pointed to his head is worthy of the strongest condemnation. If you believe the photo isn't intended to be a threat of violence against Kaepernick, I would ask how you felt about Snoop Dogg holding a gun to the head of a clown version of Donald Trump or when Kathy Griffin posed with a bloody mannequin head of the president? Even if it was intended to be a joke, it was in terribly poor taste.
In a statement released on the school's website, Joyce Bylander, Vice President and Dean of Student Life, said:
The costume and the image were deeply offensive and reflected the exercise of very poor judgment. These decisions and actions in no way represent our Dickinson values, and we will work with those involved to educate them on the impact of their behavior. We must all understand that this action, however distasteful, is a form of free expression. However, their speech does not mean that we must sit idly by and accept their message.
...I call on the community to handle this situation as we have handled other difficult moments. We must engage each other in conversations about how individual choices can have a negative impact on other community members. We must answer speech with speech.
This is a principled and mature response that college administrations across the country should consider adopting in light of such offensive speech and expression. Punishing students for offensive speech could backfire and solidify their hateful or ill-informed views. But educating them instead on why their speech and expression are offensive is a far better way to bridge the divide that's grown wider post-Charlottesville.
While I attended the school, Dickinson's motto was "engage the world." It's time to bring that mindset back and engage the world we live in now where racist and bigoted behavior has become mainstream with love and compassion. That's the only way to bring people together.