A Greek life retreat for students at the University of Mississippi was cut short last weekend after three black students found a banana peel in a tree by a cabin, reports The Daily Mississippian, the student newspaper.
The placement of the banana peel was considered an offense against African Americans even though a student said he threw the peel in the tree because he couldn’t find a garbage can. Breakfast options Saturday morning included a fruit cart with bananas.
“Many members of our community were hurt, frightened, and upset by what occurred,” Alexa Lee Arndt, interim director of Fraternity and Sorority Life, wrote in a letter to campus chapter leaders that was obtained by the student newspaper.
The discovery of the banana peel led to an emotional discussion at Camp Hopewell about race relations. “The massive discussion session wrapped up as more and more students stood and left the room – some in tears, some in frustration,” according to The Daily Mississippian. Students texted friends to come pick them up from the camp and the remainder of the retreat was canceled.
“At that point, we didn’t feel welcome, we didn’t feel safe,” Makala McNeil, one of the students who found the peel, told The Daily Mississippian. “If we didn’t feel wanted or safe at the camp, our best option was to leave.”
Bananas have been used historically to dehumanize black people because of stereotypes about black people having apelike qualities, noted McNeil later in a letter to the editor of the student newspaper. She mentioned an incident in May at American University in Washington, D.C., where someone hung at least three bananas in nooses on campus.
McNeil, who is president of an African-American sorority, criticized the coverage in The Daily Mississippian of the incident at the Greek life retreat, saying it lacked context.
“Mainstream news organizations have long prioritized white, conservative perspectives above the voices of black people,” she said in her lengthy letter published by the paper she accused of stifling black voices.
She also said the Ole Miss incident was troubling even if the student meant no harm by throwing the peel in the tree.
“Regardless whether last weekend’s incident was an honest mistake or a malicious threat, our response as black Greeks at the University of Mississippi was valid and authentic, especially given the present state of race relations in our country and at our university,” McNeil wrote.
Ryan Swanson, the student who threw the peel in the tree, said in a statement to the student newspaper that he wanted “to sincerely apologize for the events that took place this past weekend.”
“Although unintentional, there is no excuse for the pain that was caused to members of our community,” Swanson said. “We must all keep in mind how our actions affect those around us differently.”
Katrina Caldwell, vice chancellor for diversity and community engagement, told The Daily Mississippian her office was developing a plan to address the incident.
“Right now, we’re just talking to people on campus who have some experience working across diversity to help the students process what happened,” Caldwell said.
Conservative commentator Todd Starnes, who appears on Fox News, confirmed with university officials that “there was some sort of incident.”
“We are aware of the situation and working to address it through appropriate channels,” a spokesman told Starnes. “Since we became aware of what occurred at the fraternity and sorority community’s retreat, UM staff acted quickly in an effort to engage in discussion with students.”
School officials did not respond to requests by The Tennessee Star for comment.
Critics who wrote comments on the student newspaper’s Facebook page took the university to task for overreacting. Some wondered if the news article was satire. One critic wrote that the school’s reputation would be damaged.
“Ole Miss, please keep in mind you are totally destroying the credibility, validity, and marketability of any future degrees granted by this institution,” he wrote. “It would be difficult for me to hire any of your graduates for fear I would get a bananaphobe.”