Doghead: is it culturally appropriate?

Last week, a fellow NESCAC made headlines in newspapers ranging from the Washington Post to the UK’s The Independent. Several Bowdoin students came under fire after pictures were taken showing students wearing sombreros at a “tequila party.” In the aftermath, Bowdoin’s President sent a school wide email urging students to create a more inclusive environment. Though he did not speak about punishments for the party’s hosts, two student government representatives are under investigation by their colleagues for allegedly attending the party. This debacle comes after two other controversial parties, specifically a “gangster” party last fall and a “Cracksgiving Party” in 2014.

The news of this party has had a divided response from students and pundits alike. Some argue that the party wasn’t meant to represent Mexican heritage and therefore was not degrading any culture. Others—including President Clayton Rose and Dean of Students Tim Foster—referred to the event as “ethnic stereotyping” and “an act of bias.”

I’m writing about these events because these issues are just as present at Colby as they are at other institutions. Most students on campus are aware of the recent controversies revolving around the perceived sexism and classism of “Suit Up Day” and the widespread anger over SPB changing the Mr. Colby event to the all-inclusive Colby Universe competition.

Many students believe that arbitrary political correctness is responsible for the changes made to Mr. Colby, and I don’t necessarily blame them. Prior to the announcement, I had never heard any student resentment toward the tradition. In my four years at Colby, the competition has always been one of the most widely attended events I’ve seen. While I don’t believe it was necessary to change Mr. Colby, I do think it’s for the best moving forward. We, as a college are still working on being an inclusive environment—with varying success—so if we can open a beloved event up to all members of campus, why shouldn’t we?

Tradition does not outweigh our values, so we should not appeal to it. While I don’t always agree with the things people are offended by, I do believe we should all make the effort to understand why our actions or words have hurt them. We have come to Colby not just to learn about the writings of Rousseau or game theory, but also to learn from the experiences and perspectives of our peers.

While Colby has not have drawn national attention for any party themes—knock on wood—I do think we should examine one of Colby’s most beloved traditions: Doghead.

Since 1992, Doghead has been a hallmark of the Colby experience. It’s seen as a night of camaraderie, an acme of (liver) strength and mental fortitude, and the greatest embodiment of Colby’s unofficial maxim: work hard, play hard. While the tradition of Doghead isn’t longstanding—I was born the year it started—it remains a vital part of Mule folklore. In 2004, when President Adams announced Doghead had been cancelled and students would be punished for participating, mass vandalism broke out on campus. An email from Adams detailed the destruction: “students broke thousands of dollars worth of windows, threw a chair out of a dorm window and through Associate Dean Cecilia Stanton’s windshield, overturned a valuable outdoor sculpture at the museum, did other damage, and chanted obscenities on the library steps.” Colby students and alumni alike love Doghead and, if it were ended, it’s not hard to imagine the chaos of 2004 repeating itself.

I love Doghead. I met my girlfriend during Doghead my freshman year, and my other two have been nearly as memorable. However, this love does not negate the need for a serious discussion about what Doghead is: a party premised on the appropriation of Irish heritage.

Doghead always occurs on the Saturday closest to St. Patrick’s Day, and because of that, many of the traditions that come with St. Patrick’s extend to Doghead. While Natty Ice and PBR are always in abundance on Doghead, it’s equally common to see students sipping Guinness while wearing shamrocks and green leprechaun costumes. Similarly, the event is premised on a night of heavy drinking—a stereotypical activity of the Irish. Compare that to wearing a sombrero at a “tequila party.”

The difference between the parties at Bowdoin and Doghead is the culture that’s being appropriated. While Bowdoin’s events revolved around minority groups that face widespread prejudice in America, Irish-Americans largely avoid the same racism today. However, that doesn’t mean the Irish have had an easy time in America. Many of the first Irish-Americans were indentured servants. The Know Nothing movement of 1850s focused on “purifying” American politics from Catholic influence, often leading to violence against Irish communities. In the 1920s, several immigration acts were passed in order to stem Irish immigration to America. In the 1970s, President Nixon once said “[t]he Irish have certain — for example, the Irish can’t drink. What you always have to remember with the Irish is they get mean. Virtually every Irish I’ve known gets mean when he drinks. Particularly the real Irish.” While these incidents of prejudice and violence against the Irish are less common today, they have nonetheless faced a long history of discrimination in our country.

Maybe this lack of modern intolerance is why there are no mass protests against Doghead. Maybe the reason stems from students’ infatuation with the tradition. Maybe students haven’t really given it much thought. Perhaps it’s a combination of all three. However, it’s also very possible that you think I’m out of line for writing this piece. By comparing the cultural-appropriation of Doghead to parties that denigrate Hispanics and African-Americans, it may seem like I’m dismissing the legitimacy of speaking out against white people wearing sombreros. That is not my goal. The reason I’m writing about Doghead is because, while I unequivocally believe that Irish-Americans face negligible amounts of racism compared to those experienced by Hispanics or African-Americans, the Irish have nonetheless lived under systematic oppression in America.

In her coverage of Bowdoin’s “tequila party,” The Washington Post’s Catherine Rampell helped condense my thoughts to a few questions when she juxtaposed the “tequila party” with the administration-sanctioned “Cold War” party, where some students dressed up as “Stalin,” the dictator whose policies killed between 34 and 49 million Russians. Rampell asks, “What principle makes one theme deserving of school sponsorship and another of dorm expulsion? Perhaps race is the bright line, but not long ago people of Slavic heritage weren’t considered white either. Does intent matter? What about distance (geographic or chronological) from the culture being turned into a party theme?” Like Slavs, Irish-Americans weren’t considered to be white until relatively recently either. However, since the Irish are now considered white—and therefore part of the majority—does that make it okay? But what about Jews? They are also considered white, but someone would face backlash if they had a Bar Mitzvah-themed party with stereotypical “Jewish” attire.

In most of my articles, I finish with an absolute opinion in favor of one side or the other. This is not one of those articles. Personally, I don’t think Doghead is a malicious occasion. In all honesty, most of the people of Irish heritage who I’ve talked to think this is a stupid idea for an article, as they are not offended by Doghead. Nor am I. I find it an oddity for sure, but I think it is ultimately a beneficial Colby tradition. However, while I don’t think we should get rid of it, I think we as a community should at least work to understand why Doghead differs from the tequila party. Discussions about cultural appropriation and political correctness are too often kept private and take place among like-minded individuals. When there is exchange between camps, it often takes place on Yik Yak to ensure anonymity as some students worry their honest opinion will give them the reputation of a bigot. For a school that talks about these issues so much, we’re doing a really poor job of talking about them to each other. In light of all this, I hope that this piece does make you think about why one party theme is okay and why another isn’t. Talk about these issues honestly, openly, and respectfully. And hopefully, there won’t be an article about Doghead in The Washington Post next week.

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