Edinburgh University Law Society has become the centre of much controversy at the university today, after several members attended an organised social – dressed as Somali pirates. The dress code was based on the theme ‘from around the world’.
The members dressed up for a ‘Beerientering’ event last night (November 14) organised by the society. The use of blackface caused much controversy, with the Law Society President, and many others, condemning the students’ behaviour.
The term ‘blackface’ traditionally describes make-up used by non-black actors to play a black role. Whilst a common theatrical practice in early 20th century, popular with vaudeville shows, it is considered highly offensive by many groups today.
On a post on the Law Society’s Facebook page, President Keir Gilius said: “On behalf of the committee and Society, I extend my sincerest apologies to anyone offended.”
Gilius later released a statement saying: “As a society, we try to arrange our events with innovative and interesting themes leaving scope for attendees to use their imagination. In no way was this theme intended to incite racism or cultural appropriation [...]
“As a society, we respect our members’ right to freedom of expression; however, cultural insensitivity is intolerable and this is something that we are completely opposed to.”
The Law Society Facebook group’s privacy was change to ‘Secret’ this morning, but a source close to the Student, within the society said that response to the incident had been mixed.
Aside from the President’s apology, one student was reported as writing: “Since when it is rascist [sic] to dress up as a Somalian Pirate for Halloween? If anything, all these guys are doing is bringing attention to the unresolved issue of piracy.”
Another Law student, who later requested their name be withdrawn for fears about the “consequences to future employers”, said: “it was harmless fun, by people dressing from countries all around the world. I went as an astronaut – is Buzz Aldrin offended?!”
A Law Society member who wished to remain anonymous told the Student that the bouncers at The Hive, one of the stops during the social, were told that it could be very offensive to any black people inside. The student reported that the bouncers said: “if they’re offended they can leave.”
Warren O’Donnell, an Amnesty International Society student present during the incident, said: “We asked the bouncers whether [the costumes] were appropriate, [...] they just relied something absolutely absurd like “why wouldn’t we turn them away”.
“It was beyond believable.”
A spokesperson for The Hive declined to comment on the incident.
Speaking to the Student, Amie Robertson of Edinburgh University Tibet Society, who was present at The Three Sisters – another of the venues visited by the society, said: “The members were dressed as Somalian pirates due to the ‘around the world’ theme of the social.
“A stand off ensued with members of Tibet Society, Amnesty International and Vegetarian Soc. calling out the students and explaining the serioius [sic] racism of their costumes. Their reply? “It’s only for one night”.
“We cannot condone such racism in our student body.”
Nadia Mehdi, Edinburgh University Students’ Association (EUSA) Vice President for Societies and Activities, told the Student:
“I’m really shocked to see that in this day and age these students weren’t aware of or chose to ignore the offense they would cause by painting their faces black. It’s not acceptable and should not be condoned.
“The Law Society is not a EUSA society so we can’t discipline them but I will be bringing this to the attention of the Law School.”
In a written statement, Vegetarian Society member Eloise Rahman said:
“We don’t live in a post racial society, and we don’t live on an equal playing field for people regardless of skin colour [...] [c]ondemning actions like this is so important”
“After we explained all this to them, there [sic] excuse was “it’s only one night”. Not that it’s not racist, not that this is [the] complete appropriation and discrimination against another persons [sic] culture and appearance; but that it’s only one night- so its [sic] ok. THIS IS SO WRONG!”
However some have objected to the public nature of the criticism. Zack Korman, a 3rd year Law student and member of Law Society, said, “This issue should be dealt with privately. While I do not support their costume, ‘naming and shaming’ is an inappropriate way of handling this issue.”
Attempts to get the Twitter hashtag “ThisIsNotOk” trending have been made by some students following the incident. Proponents argue this will address the “normalization of Black and Ethnic Minority oppression becoming manifested in students ‘ [sic] costumes”.