So How Should the College Respond to Hate Crimes, Anyway?: A Response to “Sunsets and Blackface”

Early on April 2, the Geneseo Administration finally released the floodgates that had been building up after student outrage over the last day or so. They wrote a formal response to the “sunsets and blackface” snapchat that had quickly gained circulation around campus. In case you aren’t aware of the image, which I will not be reposting here to avoid giving it any more traction than it already has gotten, it is a snapchat that shows two (presumably) college-aged women overlooking a Geneseo sunset in charcoal masks, captioned “sunsets and blackface with my bae.” As if this weren’t already vehemently unfunny enough to begin with, the following snapchat shows the two girls in big grins with the caption “[just kidding] they’re face masks”.


The administration's response in this email is as follows:


Overnight, the College received reports of two social media image postings showing two Geneseo students posing in what appears to be blackface. The reported behavior is deeply disturbing, reprehensible, and wholly inconsistent with the values of this College. Please know that the matter has the full attention of the College's leadership. Members of the College administration were immediately notified, and the situation is currently under investigation.


We recognize that there is a long history of blackface in this country, a practice that has denigrated and minimized the Black experience. It is the historical lens through which this incident is being experienced by many members of the College community. We categorically reject and condemn the racism inherent in portrayals of blackface. We will be following up with opportunities for support and dialogue and will communicate those plans as soon as they are in place.


Any Geneseo student knows this, but a recent article in The Lamron confirmed the common knowledge that the Geneseo administration tends to be very guarded in disseminating information: more so than most SUNY schools. It seems as if any time something of importance happens on the Geneseo campus, the administration is intent on wording the details of the incident as noncommittal as possible. Professors leave their jobs “effective immediately” with no further explanations, not even a hint of the allegations or reasoning behind them. Business school students rallied the administration for months to provide even a hint as to why the president of their school’s major suddenly left; even to this day, I do not think that any explanation has been provided. As someone who has had the unfortunate experience of being present during previous hate crime incidents on campus and watching the administration's response to them, this email was of particular interest to me. For starters, the college actually acknowledged the seriousness of the act in calling it “reprehensible”, detailing the act’s history and context. This is more than could be said of the emails following the college’s Sorbello incident, in which a Sociology professor made incredibly demeaning remarks towards transgender persons. The emails following said incident were much more vague in nature:


A situation that took place in a sociology classroom earlier this week has been brought to my attention and I felt the need to communicate to you about it, particularly as it pertains to our value of inclusivity.


A professor is reported to have presented materials and made comments about which some students have expressed concern. We are taking the matter very seriously and are gathering the facts to determine if and what action is warranted.


The classroom is an environment in which students and faculty can and should discuss challenging topics and ideas, which makes it all the more important that we gather and fully review the facts in this case.  


As we review this situation, let me say unequivocally that SUNY Geneseo has a steadfast and uncompromising commitment to diversity and inclusivity. We work diligently to sustain an inviting and supportive environment for people of all gender identities, gender expressions, sexual orientations, races, religions and other identities.”


This email makes no direct address towards the campus’ transgender community, instead deciding to namedrop multiple minority groups in what felt like an attempt to appear open-minded – despite religious and racial groups not being the target of the incident. During this incident, many transgender students felt as if they were suffering alone in the aftermath, with the college seemingly refusing to take a strong stance on the legitimacy of their identities. In this sense, one might say that the “sunsets and blackface” email is a marked improvement, which I thank the administration for.


But still, there is reason for concern.


I think many students do not understand the legal complexities involved in investigating situations like this, due to privacy concerns, contracts, individual rights, etc. This is not a defense of the school for being as secretive as it is with its investigations of hate crimes, however – it’s not as if the school is doing anything to make the complexities of this process more apparent to us, either. Frustration occurs on both sides; for the students, it comes from feeling left out of a process that personally victimizes themselves, friends, and community members, and for the administration, it comes from feeling as though the students do not understand the difficulties involved in investigating such manners. Of course, the easy answer to this would be “be more open about it, then!”, but therein lies the problem. The faculty and administrator members closest to the campus community tend to be, at the same time, members that do not have the power to make these changes in administrative transparency. The ones that might have this power still have to go through the upper rungs of Geneseo’s administrators, lawyers, and President Battles herself – all entities that are connected to this campus in name alone.


One has to wonder, then, how this particular incident will be handled. To the minorities of the Geneseo campus, each hate crime more or less feels like a timeline, a row of reprehensible acts lost to the administrative tangle of secrecy that results in vague emails such as “I believe our approach [to Sorbello] was equitable, deliberative and thorough and the resulting actions both well-considered and consistent with our institutional values” – what on earth does that mean, besides being feel-good fluff talk?


I think, ultimately, my concern lies with the college’s latest response potentially falling victim to this “fluff talk” mentality. Sure, the email talks up a good game, knows its history, and such. But what are they planning to do with that history? Do they want to create a facade of care while keeping the affected communities out of the loop as investigations continue? Will they continue to perpetuate a culture of turning to google searches and gossip between students to figure out what’s happening next, checking our emails daily for updates but being met with radio silence, only for the whole thing to be wrapped up in an “it’s done, stop asking about it” email? Will there be any attempts to actually back up the strong words within that email, or are we looking at more of the same?


I suppose only time will tell – just the way Geneseo likes it.


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