On Wednesday evening, the St. Thomas Residence Hall Association was scheduled to hold an event called "Hump DAAAAAAY!" A flier for it says, "Take pictures with A REAL CAMEL!"
But the event was canceled after a group of students used Facebook to organize an anti-"Hump Day" protest that was scheduled for the same time.
The reason the students decided to organize the protest is multifaceted, Ryan Burke, one of the protest's organizers, tells us.
"Camels on campus, livestock on campus -- it doesn't seem like the priorities are in line with the mission of our campus," Burke, a justice and peace studies major, says. "That sparked me to be critical of it."
"A group of us got together to point out there were issues with having a camel on a predominately white campus," he continues. "It's a case study here -- [St. Thomas] is 86 percent white, a majority of students are from the upper-class suburbs, and it feels like you're going to school with Michele Bachmann over and over and over again. In a predominantly white campus, having an exotic animal on campus that people can take selfies with, we decided to speak out and it got canceled."
In the end, a Facebook event page for the protest ended up with more RSVPs than the event page for the actual "Hump Day" extravaganza itself. ("We had more than 100 RSVPs, and it's really big deal to get people to do anything here so we had a lot of support behind us, very much much more support than normal," Burke says.) In a Facebook reprinted on Campus Reform that appears to have since been deleted, the RHA cited the event's divisiveness as the reason the plug was pulled.
"RHA's goal in programming is to bring residents together in a fun and safe environment where all people can enjoy themselves," RHA president Lindsay Goodwin said in the post. "It appears however, this program is dividing people and would make for an uncomfortable and possibly unsafe environment for everyone attending or providing the program. As a result, RHA has decided to cancel the event."
(For an in-depth analysis of why some St. Thomas students were troubled by the Hump Day event, read Ashley Allan's essay, "For Us White Folk: Unpacking Our Orientalism.")
As you'd imagine, many students don't agree with the RHA's decision to cancel the event. Morgan Schreurs, a political science major who says she has friends on both sides of the issue, says she's heard from students who "didn't think the protest was a good use of time or energy." But Schreurs says the nuanced objections put forth by Burke and others were quickly reduced to a caricature.
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"There was a real dialogue going on between [the two camps] but then some people really reduced [the protesters' views] to an irresponsibly simplified version of the truth," Schreurs says. "I think it's important to remember that protesters had a whole lot reasons to protest the event, not just [because] of the potential for racism, but also about a waste of money [bringing the camel in would've reportedly cost about $500], the event's carbon footprint -- there are a whole line of things."
To give you a flavor for the protesters' complex suite of concerns, consider this passage from an email sent to us by protest co-organizer Claire Winzenburg.
"UST had just recently sprayed our grass with toxic chemicals, and that there were signs actively warning against pets and children being on the grass, so maybe a camel shouldn't be on it either?" she writes. "We believed it [to] be wrong that UST was going to monetarily support a company that exploits animals with no agency, keeping them in an environment that is vastly different than their natural habitat and making a profit off of using animals as props."
"There is also the INCREDIBLY important issue surrounding the way this event had been framed," Winzenburg continues. "Having a 'real' or 'exotic' camel come to a predominantly white campus to be gawked at presents a problem. I had an Arab American friend express to me that this event made them feel very uncomfortable, and that is NOT okay with me. I do not wish for anyone to feel uncomfortable or unsafe on campus."
Burke says he's "very disappointed" by the "innumerable" hateful messages he's received since the "Hump Day" protest began.
"I had a friend who had awful things messaged to her on Facebook, like, 'I hate when minorities complain,"" Burke says. "The grossest things came out of peoples' mouths. I felt uncomfortable walking on campus and still do. It's been a very unsettling response."
"Overall, we just wanted to have a thoughtful dialogue open up on a campus that is very apathetic," Burke continues. "We wanted to make sure everybody felt comfortable, including the camel."