SGA Civility Week shirts cause controversy
An SGA planning committee purchased these shirts to be used during a Civility Week demonstration called “The Label.”. Angela Freese
Members of ETSU's administration met with representatives from the Student Government Association Executive Branch on Thursday to discuss the concerns about controversial T-shirts to be worn during an event on Monday during Civility Week.
The meeting was called by Dr. Joe Sherlin, dean of students, who had a lot of concerns about the T-shirts that contain derogatory terms.
The design of the T-shirts included a block of offensive words on the front with "The Label:" listed above. The back of the shirt reads, "I am more than a label," and features Civility Week's mantra, "Think. Live. Respect."
The back of the shirt also includes the date, time and location of the event.
The shirts were to be worn by selected members of groups in the campus community that represent marginalized students.
These include the Hispanic American Student Community Alliance, LGBTieS (the campus Gay-Straight Alliance), Black Affairs Association, Diversity Educators, and Student Government Association.
Individuals who will wear the shirts are given a slip of paper entitled "Warning: Handle With Care!" that urges them to take the subject matter of the shirt seriously and to serve as an ambassador for civility on campus. It also includes information about the purpose of Civility Week and the university's values.
The shirts are used to show the negative labels that people are called on a daily basis," said SGA Secretary of State Michael Stockwell. "The goal is to cause students to engage in conversations about these shirts and to give opportunities to students that have been called these negative labels the chance to express themselves and to get people to participate in Civility Week."
SGA Vice President Zack Walden said in a press release that he believes something bold was necessary to target students for this event. "The shirts were the hook to get students interested in Civility Week. Without a big draw, the only students who will be attending our events are the students who already understand and care about a commitment to diversity.
"While we know that this week is not going to draw in some members of the campus population who oppose the promotion and acceptance of diversity, I felt that it was important to target the students who fall in between each group: those who may not have thought about the importance of equality or those who may stand idly by while acts of prejudice are committed on this campus daily," Walden said.
The shirt was designed with the Civility Week Planning Committee being fully aware of the possible negative consequences and the possible outcomes of the event.
It was decided within that group that the project was important to bring attention to the negative impact that labels have on individuals.
"I was thoroughly impressed with the student representatives at the meeting about the T-shirts," said Dr. Chris Dula, associate professor in the department of psychology.
"They had obviously given a great deal of thoughtful consideration to some very important issues concerning the design of the shirts, the people to whom they'd be issued, and preparing shirt-wearers to deal positively with almost any kind of reaction imaginable," Dula said in statement to the East Tennessean. "They clearly have the best of intentions in terms of wanting to point out people are not labels and that insulting labels discount, dehumanize, and hurt people."
It was decided at the meeting to allow students to wear the shirts in Borchuck Plaza from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., as well as to the evening event.
"After a great deal of discussion and debate it was decided that the shirts should still be distributed in a more confined manner," said Stockwell. "The distribution process was already very confined to the organizations assisting in Civility Week, but we thought it would be necessary to reduce the number of shirts as well."
There was much concern about the context in which the shirts would be presented as well as controlling the distribution and return of the shirts so as to not allow one to become a "prize" or source of humor for bigoted and biased individuals on campus.
"The concerns expressed by the ETSU staff, faculty and administration largely revolved around the potential for unintended negative consequences," Dula said. "For example, there was a concern that not everyone seeing the shirts would be aware of their purpose, and thus some might be accidentally offended or some might think it was a joke and feel they could laugh at the labels and what they represent."
The administration reached the decision to limit distribution to 150 shirts to be given out at the Borchuck Plaza and ultimately to not allow students to keep the shirts, collecting them after the event planned at Brooks Gym at 7 p.m.
The SGA representatives who were present at the meeting opposed this idea.
"The student representatives were very passionate and logical in advocating their positions, but they were also very engaged in understanding the concerns expressed," said Dula.
It was viewed by administration as an acceptable path forward. One that would limit classroom disruption and the possibility of hostility against students who choose to wear the shirts.
"In the meeting, I strongly advocated that students be allowed to take a risk and wear the shirts around campus and hope that it had an impact," said Walden. "While I understand that some students may see the shirts as a tool to continue to promote prejudice against marginalized groups, this gives the student body a chance to stand up against offensive behavior."
SGA President Dalton Collins said in a press release that he was very disappointed with the decision of administration. Collins felt those in the Division of Student Affairs should especially be the ones encouraging student activism and empowerment through a variety of activities.
"I have spent my entire time at ETSU growing to the point where I am now comfortable advocating for the rights and liberties of minorities," Collins said. "I have reached that point and have now felt immense pressure to back down from a point of view because of a fear of negative consequences.
"If there is a legitimate fear that these shirts may invoke violence or a major disruption on this campus, we have much larger issues of which Civility Week will only scratch the surface. This is a symptom of the university not doing enough to address diversity issues.
"I am immensely disappointed that the spirit of this event has been removed. Many students who would wear these shirts face ridicule and marginalization and suffer in silence on a daily basis, but they are being told they can only stand up and speak out in a controlled and moderated environment. For a lack of better words, that is immensely unfair."
Collins said, "While this issue at the beginning of the week has been somewhat of a distraction, it is not the entire week. There are events each day to address varying issues from race to gender to religion and spirituality to ethnicity to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender concerns. We have a chance to begin making positive change on this campus. I encourage students to take advantage of these wonderful opportunities to engage in conversation and discourse. They promise to be interesting and engaging."
Civility Week will take place this week with a variety of events occurring each day. Students are encouraged to participate. All events are free and open to the public.
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