They didn’t mean to be offensive.

“They didn’t mean to be offensive.”

A picture of six white Williams students donning taco costumes with mustaches and sombreros were shared last night to the rest of the campus. These pictures were on Instagram for everyone to see, and a few students have shared those pictures with the rest of the student body.

“They didn’t mean to be offensive.”

What is offensive about a taco costume? Nothing, a taco costume is not offensive. But, a taco costume with a fake mustache and a sombrero is. But why is it offensive if they are all Mexican things? Taking three different reductive stereotypes about Mexicans and Mexican culture and putting into one costume simplifies, reduces, and exotizes Mexicans. You perpetuate the one caricature of Mexicans already deeply ingrained in the imagination of the U.S. You become complicit in anti-Mexicanness that I, my family, my neighbors back home, other students, staff, and faculty at Williams, and thousands of others across the U.S. experience daily.

“They didn’t mean to be offensive.”

The six women are posing slightly hunched over, raising their fists, with the caption: “First there was the Jackson Five and then there was the Taco Six. #Ole.” The Jackson Five? Olé? Why do these Williams students feel the need to dress up as people of color for Halloween? Why are they only willing to engage with other cultures on a holiday? If they love our cultures so much, why do I not see them at the events we spend months planning to teach and to share different aspects of our identities and heritage? Why are we only the butt of their Halloween joke?

“They didn’t mean to be offensive.”

The caricature of Mexicans shows how abstract we are to them. We may share the same dining halls, be in the same classes, have mutual friends, but in the end, it does not register to them that their actions may have different implications for those of us who do not and cannot fit into the dominant culture at Williams and in the U.S. Some of us are not granted the option to not be offended due the history of exploitation, the ongoing attacks of Mexicans in the U.S., and our every day lived experiences.

“They didn’t mean to be offensive.”

I reiterate, their reduction and caricature of Mexicans and Mexican culture aligns with what is already etched in the imagination of the U.S. In the imagination of the U.S., we are sombrero-wearing, taco-eating, dirty mustached, wetback beaners who are here to take up all the jobs and mow your lawns, wash your dishes, be your child’s nanny, pick your fruit and vegetables; we are your employees, we are illegals, we are dirty, we are lazy, we are criminals, we do not belong here. We are Other.

“They didn’t mean to be offensive.”

We are Othered. I was waiting in my mom’s car a few years ago while she and her partner, Felipe, went inside the store to buy some things. A man comes up to the passenger window where I was sitting and starts saying something. I roll down the window. He says, “Can you move your car a bit forward so I can pull out of the parking lot?” I reply, “I can’t drive, but I’ll call my mom to move it right now.” He goes back to his car. I call my mom, she doesn’t pick up. A few seconds go by, but it feels like hours as I see the man getting irritated. I call again. She picks up. “Ma, ven a mover el carro.” I tell her to come over to move the car. She tells me she ran into an old friend so she will send Felipe to move it. My heart starts sinking. I see through the rearview window that the man has become increasingly impatient. “No, mom, you come to move it please.” She hangs up. I nervously look at the entrance of the store, hoping it is she who comes move the car. Felipe walks out, and he makes his way to the car. I avoid looking at the impatient man. Felipe walks up to the car, gets in, turns on the car and moves the car forward.

The man in his car speeds up next to our car, and yells, “Go back to your country, you fucking wetback!” along with a myriad of other slurs and drives off, just like that.

I just sit there.

“They didn’t mean to be offensive.”

Felipe is short, dark complexion. My mom has blue eyes, light complexion. I wanted her to come move the car because I knew the man would not say anything to her because she looks white. When I saw the caricature costume, I relived that experience. I relived the anxiety, the stress, the embarrassment, the shame, the helplessness I felt those five minutes. I was reminded that Mexican people exist as something less than human, whether as criminals or costumes, to many people. It is not just the racist asshole from the store, but also my peers here at Williams.

“They didn’t mean to be offensive.”

I have never felt fully comfortable in Paresky, or for that matter, in many places on this campus. Hearing the way people talk about MinCo groups, seeing how people move when they pass a black or brown person, experiencing how unequal public spaces are, the different levels of entitlement to Paresky. When we do things to reclaim spaces, we are limited to 24 hours, to a few days. And when we try to be reparative, in how we see fit, we are met with backlash of stares, of smirks, of anonymous dissent on mobile apps. They tell us we are dividing the campus. They tell us we are alienating others. They tell us we are using radical language. They tell us we are using polarizing language. Excuse me? The majority of my time at Williams has been alienating, and I am not alone in that respect. I think people can handle a few minutes, hours, or days of discomfort. When has racism ever been dealt with comfortably?

They tell us to bring speakers, they tell us to bring a panel, they tell us to hold discussions, they tell us to try to change policy. And, we do, we try. But they don’t attend. But they don’t participate. So we make noise instead. And we make ourselves seen, and we make ourselves heard. And that’s making people uncomfortable.

It is making people uncomfortable that this action is not staying in Morley Circle when they so often chastised us MinCo groups for “segregating” ourselves. We join these groups for safety, for community because we cannot see ourselves in the dominant Williams community.

This institution was all white, male, affluent for hundreds of years. We are still finding ways to create room for ourselves in this place, and you are blaming us for trying to do so. The culture that has been at Williams for decades cannot be erased easily, and it is a messy process making this place welcoming for myself, my fellow Latina/os, my fellow people of color, my fellow working class people, my fellow queer people.

It is a messy process. There is not one person or a select few leading all people of color and our actions. Please stop lumping as “the activists” as you do on anonymous mobile apps and in your private conversations. The different events going on in the past few weeks have been led by different people. There are people creating art in a response. There are people leading die-ins. There are people leading marches. There are people coordinating events. We are all doing different things as a response but you are so vehemently stuck on what is most visible and most loud so you can force upon us the label of angry minorities and make us feel bad for ‘interrupting’ your lunch or finals studying.

In the end, people will not get it. People will say, “it was just a costume.” It is not about the costume itself, it is about these six white Williams students wearing a caricature of a costume at a school and in a country where people cannot feel safe because of their heritage and they are showing no empathy for these people, for my people, they so claim to be celebrating with their tacky costume.

I am sure they are nice girls. I am sure they are fairly liberal. But I am not sure if they have thought about the implications of their costume, and the fact that they did not think about the implications is enough for me to be upset by the lack of thoughtfulness and empathy. We attend a college and live in a country where people can get away with not being thoughtful, and that is not okay. And that is why people are upset, because people will say, “they didn’t mean to be offensive” as an excuse for their actions. But we are tired of the liberty with which people will use aspects of our culture for their own entertainment without giving one shit about us as people. We are tired because we work so hard to feel entitled to public spaces and then we see the ease with which people walk these halls with tasteless costumes that mock us and take pictures and share with their friends online, making a public humiliation of us and our efforts at being part of the Williams community.

To my fellow Mexicans and Mexican-Americans who are posting anonymously that they feel like those who are upset are “forcing them to be a victim,” thank you for using the word “victim” to undermine the hurt and pain felt. Thank you for speaking on behalf of everyone who feels hurt by the actions of these Williams students and vilifying us. Thank you for homogenizing our hurting and how we are responding to that hurt. Look. I do not want you to feel victimized. But I want you to understand why others might feel pain even if you do not. I didn’t mean to offend you!

-Gabriela Contreras-Cisneros
Williams College ’15

This is what my peers are saying and believe:
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Yes, because I rather be writing this post than binge watching Parks & Recreation to procrastinate.

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“Because we live in a society that believes in being reactive instead of proactive.” Homie, you would have said the same thing had people been upset by this after it had happened!! It’s not that no one gave a shit, it’s that no one knew, and those who knew clearly did not feel the need to speak up and teach them/call them out, which is quite sad if you ask me. None of their friends questioned their costume idea??

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Oh, a conspiracy theorist, too. We have agendas! Yeah, we do… like being able to feel comfortable at the school we attend! Radical agenda, I guess.

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Thanks for trying to divide us people of color and lumping people who are taking action together! Like we pick and choose what to condemn as if we are trying to decide between one shot or two shots at Tunnel City.

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Ok, guys, they got us. We have been caught. The Williams Activists(trademark) have been caught. They know about us browsing everyone’s Instagrams to find something we feel offended by or complain about, because we clearly do not have anything better to do. They caught us. Drats!

And that’s what my peers think about me and about others. So why do I feel uncomfortable again?