Discrimination By Any Other Name


Nowreen Sarwar

A recent incident in the name of a “harmless prank” had Rhodes astounded by the level of ignorance within the community. Two black members of the Rhodes student community were subjected to discrimination by a banana: a phallic, suggestive fruit taped to their dorm room in East Village under their names. The action was quickly followed by a campuswide outrage, as Men of Distinction (MOD), a people of color brotherhood club at Rhodes, released a statement for the insensitivity of the matter and to what extent a joke should be called such. 

In their Instagram post, they pose the question- “How is playing on racial stereotypes comical? How is making the conscious choice of racially targeting black and brown students funny?” These are the questions that echo the walls of the predominantly white institutions, searching for answers and justice, as they fade away until a new occurrence surfaces and the wheel goes on and on. The trauma and hurt the victims suffer remain silent under the title of a “prank,” where victims often try to fit in by swallowing their humiliation to not fall under the umbrella of “too PC,” “too sensitive,” and “doesn’t know how to take a joke.” This was not only alarming to empathetic Rhodes students, but also the local news. This racially charged act was quickly followed up by local ABC news, where Kofi Whitehead, the president of MOD, and Bryce Anderson, the vice president of MOD, spoke up. Whitehead says they are disappointed and surprised by the lack of response from Rhodes college, which strives to be inclusive in diminishing racial, political, religious, and gender biases. In the interview, many students expressed their concerns about why the college is not being openly apologetic when the act of discrimination based on the student’s skin was clearly very public. Two emails have been put out by the administration, none directly stating the incident, but the administration is hopeful to see this through as an ongoing open investigation. 

I had a sit-down Zoom interview with Bryce Anderson, who had expressed similar concerns about the incident, about the lack of racial education and depth of understanding from the students who were not a part of this prank. He lets us into the organization a bit by telling us the principles of MOD: they are men of the color student organization, which resembles a fraternity, where they thrive on connecting and empowering men of color by hosting events, raising awareness, and building a network within the community. They have cookouts, have meaningful discussions to connect with other men of color on campus. Anderson’s role in MOD is crucial: he is also the social media manager, along with Whitehead. He organizes events they have on campus and empowers and encourages the people involved with the club. To raise awareness, he also presents fliers and other paper media. He gains a following on social media to educate people about their presence and work on campus. Anderson gives us a detailed description of what had happened on the night of the occurrence: several students had seen the banana taped under the nametags of two black students who are members of MOD, and when they saw it, one of them had posted a story of that on their Snapchat account.

The members of MOD had seen the story, and they realized this was a racially discriminative act and was highly suggestive of a stereotype induced upon black men. The members of MOD had spoken to the victims of the incident, who, naturally, were extremely infuriated and frustrated as they had no clue who could have done this in their right minds. 

The fact that it was a full-sized banana that needed 8-10 pieces of tape to be held upright to the wall itself is suggestive that it was not done on a whim or the intruder had no idea what they were doing. It took planning and execution of managing to get a banana, some tape, and a lot of time to hold the banana and properly taping it to the door. It was not the result of a whimsical, erratic, or abrupt action done in good faith of a prank yet turned wrong. This was executed meticulously, deliberately, and thoughtfully. Therefore, this needed a statement to be put out to stand the grounds of the victims who were subjected to the trauma.

The MOD members had opened a group chat in which they discussed ideas and brainstormed what they could release, which would gain traction, empower people, and bring justice in the long run. The denouncement of the people who had caused the incident was necessary for a collegewide search for the perpetrator. At the same time, MOD kept contact with the students who were the victims of this heinous, in horrible taste “prank,” as they were still distraught. He also states a positive reaction when asked if the Rhodes administration was contacted about this incident. He says that they had reached the Dean of Inclusion and Equity, who had launched an active investigation, hopefully uncovering who the perpetrator is/are. The paperwork for such an investigation takes time. 

Keeping that in mind, the community is hopeful that such an act will not go unpunished. Anderson also believes the administration has done what they can to the fullest extent by supporting the people affected and MOD. When asked about what reforms Anderson would like to see on campus to protect minorities, he responds that educating people is the only reform that will decrease such incidents. He states, “Many people did not even know how a banana is a racially suggestive gesture towards African Americans, and how it’s a derogatory action.” He states we need to educate the student body better on issues that affect others who don’t walk the same path and be empathetic and knowledgeable about such things. He says this is not about black students. It’s about all the minority groups at Rhodes. This unfortunate event could have been prevented if the student body had been correctly educated on such matters. The message Anderson wants to put out to the Rhodes community: “These kinds of issues can still arise even at a school like Rhodes, where you would think it’s a pretty liberal school, these issues still exist. Unfortunately, these things still happen, and the best we can do is educate others surrounding us and have a response in action when certain things like this do end up happening.” 

With that said, Anderson and Whitehead, along with the MOD community, have courageously upheld a very sensitive and vital issue surrounding minorities on most campuses. The administration is trying its best to fix the problem and find the culprit, who will face disciplinary charges. It is up to us as to what kind of environment we picture ourselves being in. We must strive to give out the same level of respect we want people to give us, and educate ourselves in every chance we get about the cultures, perspectives, and beliefs of people who have a variety of differences than us, and build an inclusive, empathetic, and respectful campus environment where no one has to be in fear of being mistreated, or the target of discrimination.