If anything characterizes the current period, it may be that when prominent people behave badly, they typically issue apologies that, at best, come across as half-hearted. Either the regret being expressed is undercut by persistent notes of self-justification, or the apologies seem very calculated attempts to mitigate the personal consequences, rather than the public impact, of the offending behavior.
Against such a backdrop, this letter, written by several Kenyon College students to their campus community, seems singularly sincere and thoughtful. Indeed, since the offense that they felt necessitated the apology was completely unintentional, the apology stands out as a demonstration of a type of civility that has become a very rare commodity in our public discourse.
Dear Kenyon Students, Faculty, Staff, and Administration:
Two nights ago, we put white sheets with painted black eyes over our heads and walked around campus. Our idea, born of Kenyon bucket-list fancy, was to pose as ghosts on a haunted campus. Our action ended up materializing many more severe ghosts—both within ourselves and our peers—than we knew existed.
In the wake of our antics, we have begun to understand that “intentions and implications” are not, as many of our peers commented at the bottom of the Thrill [Kenyon College blog] post reporting the incident, “two separate things”—at least not in the respectful and enlightened community that Kenyon aims to create. In the community we want Kenyon to be, individuals are not only responsible for the actions they take, but also for the effects that those actions have on their peers—all of their peers. What’s more, we should consider the effects our actions could have on others before we perform them.
That our intentions were innocent is not what’s important. What’s important is that the harmless sheet ghosts that we envisioned appeared to many of our peers as life threatening Klansmen. In a historically racist part of rural America, we still managed to overlook the implications of white sheets at night. Only in hindsight, when confronted with the visceral fear and righteous anger of peers for whom our costumes unearthed generations of violence and inhumanity, did we begin to make the connection. That the severe implications of our actions only occurred to us after the fact is an expression of unchecked privilege and uncompassionate, selfish thoughtlessness.
Another comment under the Thrill post read, “It was done as simply a college stunt that hurt no one.” This comment is utterly false. Although we did not intend to hurt anyone, this does not negate the very real feelings of threat, terror, pain, and rage we engendered in many of our peers. Indeed, it is for giving our peers cause to question their safety on this campus—feelings they have built up after years of working through justified insecurities in the face of a lifetime of unjust experiences—that we are most sorry. We could dredge the very bottoms of our hearts, scrape every ounce of apology from it, and still not have an adequate expression of remorse—but we are trying.
Part of our effort includes the recognition that this incident represents not only a personal failure on our front, but a political problem that implicates the entire campus. Because of our white, male, middle-class backgrounds, we do not live with the history of racism at the forefront of our minds. It is because of this privileged existence that the association with the Klan was not an immediate one for us. Nor, we have noticed, was it for many of our peers—mostly white. The fact that many commenters on the Thrill felt justified decrying the “one or two people who didn’t get it”—”it” being the joke we intended, the “one or two people” being students who were offended by it—is a sign that the majority of our campus does not live with the history of racism at the forefront of its mind, either. However, a majority opinion does not amount to an ethical position.
Indeed, the majority of the reactions we received the other night, as well as those posted in the Thrill comments, indicate the prevalence of privilege on Kenyon’s campus. There is nothing inherently wrong with that privilege, but when it goes unquestioned by a consideration for our peers, it becomes highly problematic. A prime example of that problem is our actions the other night. In dressing as sheet ghosts, we not only exposed our peers to the ghosts of racism that continue to haunt their worst nightmares, but also ourselves to the ghosts of privilege and insensitivity that lead to such hurtful acts.
This has been an incredibly humbling and educational experience for us. As such, we hope that it will prove to be similarly edifying for the rest of campus. Although it was primarily racial minorities who were emotionally jarred by our antics, the incident involves every member of this community. Following Thanksgiving break, as campus-wide discussions occur about the racially sensitive issues underlying our community at large, we encourage everyone to participate and thereby gain the perspective and understanding that is needed if Kenyon is to become a truly enlightened community.
We’d like to thank Dean Toutain, Director of Counseling Patrick Gilligan, and Director of Safety Bob Hooper for their guidance and support throughout this incident. We’d also like to thank the Kenyon community, friends, and especially the Black Student Union for the criticality, compassion, and emotional honesty with which they responded to this incident.