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University rescinds racist theme for end-of-year staff party

The University has responded to complaints over an end-of-year staff party having a racist theme, Astha Rajvanshi reports.

After complaints were made regarding the Vice Chancellor’s end of year staff party for a culturally appropriated dress code of “Mexican Fiesta”, the University has announced it will no longer be having a particular theme.

“In light of some concerns regarding the proposed theme of the University’s end -of-year party for staff, it has been decided the party will have no particular theme,” an official spokesperson told Honi Soit.

Vice Chancellor Dr Michael Spence sent an email to staff yesterday stating that the University had received concerns about the theme of the party, “particularly in light of recent tragic events in southwest Mexico that you may have seen reported in the media”.

The email continued, “I would not want concerns about the appropriateness of a theme to overshadow the intent of the party: to celebrate another year of significant achievement”.

The University’s HR Service Centre originally sent out the invitations to staff members on The 11th of November via email. They stated, “Please come and join us for an end of year celebration to thank you for contribution in 2014” along with an optional dress code telling recipients to “bring your ponchos and sombreros!”

The theme has upset many students and lecturers on campus for cultural insensitivity and appropriation.

Dr Thomas Adams, a lecturer from the School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry and United States Studies Centre, declined the invitation after writing an angered response to the Vice Chancellor and Human Resources: “It is perhaps unsurprising that a university administration that has shown a marked lack of interest in hiring scholars of Latin America would hold a year-end staff party in a ‘Mexican Fiesta’ theme symbolized by ‘ponchos and sombreros.’ […] At the institutional level one cannot help but place such uninformed and to many, offensive, cultural minstrelsy in the context of a variety of developments at the university over the past year”.

Second year Education and Social Work student Camilo Haley told Honi, “as a Mexican Australian, I am used to stereotypical themed parties, but at this moment the head of a major university should not be thinking of Mexico in this way. When 43 students from a fellow university have possibly been murdered and were targeted by corrupt politicians and police, almost certainly for being students who work in disadvantaged sectors, I feel the vice-chancellor should be thinking of what role he can take to stand by another university that shares a vision of a progressive education and not thinking of Mexico as place of piñatas and tequila”.

Similarly, students from Sydney University’s Autonomous Collective Against Racism (ACAR) and other student organisations expressed disappointment with the party theme.

“I feel that it is insensitive because it stereotypes my culture and it is exploitative because it is not really inventive” said Eden Caceda, the 2015 Office Bearer of ACAR. “It’s coming under the VC the university should be trying to combat racial insensitivity rather than contributing to it.”

Caceda told Honi that while ACAR condemns the event, he sees the University’s response as “a step in the right direction”.

Vice President and Ethnocultural Portfolio holder of the University of Sydney Union Bebe D’Souza said that it was heartening to see the university respond to complaints from attendees and take their views into consideration.

“While the University’s acknowledgement of the atrocities occurring in Ayotzinapa is incredibly important particularly considering the recent actions on campus in support of the 43 missing students, it ultimately obfuscates from the core issue at play when selecting the theme, namely that of encouraging a dress code which perpetuates racist stereotypes such as dressing in a ‘sombrero’” said D’Souza.

“I hope the university acknowledges the harm done to students from diverse cultural backgrounds in using themes such as this and considers its impact in future statements.”