At 6:18 a.m. on Thursday, April 19 two University of Massachusetts students sent a letter addressed to the editor of Amherst College’s publication, The Indicator, the president of Amherst College and the assistant to the president. That letter was posted on the ICTMN website the same day.
Their letter took issue with a racist and insensitive cartoon depicting tipis as a housing solution that is “Lord Jeff approved.” (see the cartoon here)
On Monday, April 23, the students—Dwanna Robertson and Adina Giannelli—received responses from the editors of The Indicator and the cartoonist, who are also students, at 2:42 p.m. and the college’s president at 5:16 p.m. (see full responses below)
Robertson, a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma, felt noting the times was important. “When we consider that they had it first thing Thursday morning and didn’t answer until Monday afternoon, we can reasonably assume that it wasn’t just the letter that caused the response,” she said. “Perhaps so, but we also think they probably received a bit of pressure from numerous outlets—especially from the ICTMN audience and their networks.”
The editors—Nadirah Porter-Kasbati and Laurence Pevsner—and cartoonist—Tricia Lipton—apologized for the cartoon and said they did not “intend to offend anyone.” They said they “do not trivialize racism and that we take the issues you raised in your letter very seriously.” Though they did not admit that the cartoon was racist or in poor taste, they did invite Robertson and Giannelli to publish their original letter or another piece in The Indicator to continue the discussion.
Robertson said she and Giannelli will take them up on that offer, but plan on publishing something new as the “original letter has served its purpose, which was to draw attention to the depiction and the Amherst College community’s lack of sensitivity and awareness and to educate people about why they shouldn’t just freely appropriate or denigrate Native culture for their own purposes—political or otherwise.”
The students are glad the editors and cartoonist are willing to enter into dialogue and accept the apology offered, but are concerned it will turn into a debate about the boundaries of artistic license or political satire.
“This is much deeper than that,” Robertson said. “We want the dialogue centered around bringing accountability and awareness of the historical racism perpetrated at Amherst College.”
And that’s already begun. Amherst College students have started a blog called Do We Need a New Mascot? at SheBomb.com.
Robertson and Giannelli are excited about the dialogue their letter has started and hope it brings about the change they desire.
“Our goals were to call The Indicator and the Amherst College community to accountability and raise awareness that blatant acts of racial insensitivity occur every day for indigenous people, not just here but everywhere. Most importantly, we wanted to stand up for the indigenous students that attend(ed) Amherst College,” Robertson said. “The Amherst College indigenous student who brought the cartoon to my attention lives daily with the microaggressions of racism. And when people, like that student, Adina, or me, speak out or speak up, we're told we're being too sensitive or it was just a joke. In other words, we're told we're always trying to make some big deal out of nothing. In my opinion, this is why it's so difficult for Native students to graduate from schools with such small populations of indigenous folks. I personally know the toll it takes.”
Full response from The Indicator:
Dear Dwanna and Adina,
Thank you for contacting us. We appreciate such a thoughtful letter and learned from your perspective. As always, we are grateful for feedback on The Indicator and hope to continue exploring the issues you raised regarding the cartoon in our magazine.
We want to sincerely apologize for the offense we have caused through the Indicartoon you reference in the letter. As you noted, by no means did the cartoonist or the editors intend to offend anyone with the aforementioned image. We want to make it clear that we do not trivialize racism and that we take the issues you raised in your letter very seriously. We are excited to continue the discussion, with an emphasis on the boundaries of public discourse when it comes to satirical and political media.
As such, we invite you to publish your letter or another piece in The Indicator discussing the conversation we should have as a community. In the spirit of public discourse, and in hopes that this will become a collaborative conversation, we will also be publishing our own thoughts on these issues and inviting the Amherst community to participate as well.
We look forward to continuing the dialogue. Please accept our apology.
Nadirah, Laurence, and Tricia
Full response from Amherst College President Carolyn “Biddy” Martin:
Dear Dwanna and Adina,
I write to thank you for your letter raising concerns about the cartoon published in last week's "The Indicator," and for bringing the problem to my attention. I believe our students have now responded to you with an apology. I join them in expressing gratitude for your thoughtful analysis and your intervention. I hope you will take them up on their offer to contribute to the discussion they wish to promote on the Amherst College campus.