On Monday, March 20, factions of The Gustavus Diversity Leadership Council and Bystander Intervention Committee, in cahoots with the theatre group I Am We Are, decided to pull an invisible theatre stunt.
They hung up white supremacist posters on campus and then waited in secret to gauge students’ responses to the signs. When the students got upset at the signs, ripping them down, the committee members jumped out of the bushes to reveal that it was, in fact, a fake project intended to raise campus awareness on how to intervene during bias incidents.
Oh wait, no they didn’t. They just hung up the white supremacist posters and went about their day. This made the experience less like an invisible theater stunt, and more like, you know, hate speech.
Eventually, ten and a half hours after the posters were hung up, the Diversity Leadership Council sent out an email essentially saying “sike, haha we got you! That was us! Now you’re aware of racism!” I’m paraphrasing here, but that was the overall message.
Now, first of all, horrible job guys. Awful. Anyone familiar with invisible theatre, or the ABC series What Would You Do?, knows it utilizes hidden cameras, then has an actor do something bad, racist, sexist, rude, etc. to another actor or actors. Then they see how the bystanders react. Immediately after that, and this is the key part here, the host comes out and lets the bystanders know it wasn’t real.
If you don’t do that – and stay with me here – people will think it was real. Shocker.
The second issue with this “invisible theater” stunt is that it didn’t target actors, it targeted real Gustavus students. It made real students of color uncomfortable. As a straight, white male, I am unable to understand how that felt. My guess is, not fantastic.
The original explanation email, in addition to being far too late, was a fumble. The Diversity Leadership Council Action Piece Committee encouraged students to “utilize campus resources (i.e. Counseling Center, Dean of Students, Residential Life, and the Diversity Center) to help get through these difficult times,” while largely standing by their stunt that had already been labeled as astonishingly idiotic by pretty much everyone.
Now, everybody makes mistakes, and this stunt came from good intentions, so that can’t be left out. However, it unfortunately got Gustavus some bad press. It went viral very quickly, and even inspired a post from “alt-right” bigot and apparent pedophilia enthusiast Milo Yiannopoulos.
This is a dangerous game, because with the rise of fake news, some dumb people out there are going to claim that every real bias incident out there is some sort of über-liberal propaganda.
Although I can forgive the guilty parties on behalf of their good intentions (disclaimer: my white privilege), I find it less forgivable that Dean of Students JoNes VanHecke went on Fox 9 News and expressed essentially no remorse or apology for the stunt.
When asked if anything would be done differently, she said “I think a message to students earlier in the day would have been a good move in retrospect.” Really? That’s it? My family and friends watched that expecting simply an admission of guilt and professionalism from the administration that “okayed” the experiment, and got nothing.
Since then, I think the DLC, I Am We Are and the college have made better steps in addressing the incident, but the awful first 48 hours overshadow it. It’s too bad they didn’t wait for Kendall Jenner to end racism with a cold can of Pepsi before they hung the posters.