An incident involving Wheaton College football players who dressed up in Ku Klux Klan robes as part of a parody of the Will Smith film “Bad Boys II” has rocked the college’s campus, which already has been reeling from two other recent high-profile incidents.
The skit, which took place Feb. 28 in a campus gym during the football team’s annual offseason team-building activity, involved groups of teammates performing skits. One group of 20 teammates, including some who are black, chose to parody several movies, including “Bad Boys II,” a 2003 Martin Lawrence and Will Smith comedy and drama that pokes fun at the KKK. During the skit at Wheaton, the group wore Klan-style white hoods and robes and carried Confederate flags.
While those who organized the skit said it was intended to be satirical, it has outraged some on campus and provoked letters to the campus community from the evangelical Christian college’s president, Philip Ryken, organizers of the skit and two assistant football coaches who were present. The controversy comes after two other high-profile incidents at Wheaton that have drawn headlines: the arrest of a student accused of video-recording a woman showering in a college-owned apartment and a student throwing fruit at another student who questioned Ryken at a campus event about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
“Wheaton College is far from perfect,” Ryken said in a statement to the Tribune. “I was shocked when I first heard that symbols with a history of racist violence had been used on our campus. Although I was somewhat relieved to learn — almost immediately — that the skit was intended to subvert racism, not promote it, I also knew that when students heard what had happened, it would understandably cause a lot of distress. Recent incidents have shown us how issues of prejudice and sexual misconduct damage trust and disturb the peace. Sadly, this is a campus where we have sins to confess and people to forgive every day.”
Ryken learned of the skit several hours after it was performed, and at 1 a.m. Sunday he and other college staff members met with one of the skit’s organizers, team captain Josh Aldrin, to try to better understand what had taken place, what the group’s intent was and why the two football coaches at the event did not stop the skit. According to a statement issued late Friday by the college, Aldrin, who could not be reached for comment by the Tribune, acknowledged poor judgment and everyone in the middle-of-the-night meeting recognized that the skit was inappropriate but not motivated by racial hostility.
In a letter emailed to the campus community Sunday, Aldrin, who is African-American, took responsibility for the parody, telling faculty and fellow students that “we made a mistake.” Aldrin, who is one of four team captains, asked for forgiveness and urged those with questions to reach out to him or teammate Wes Cannonier, who also is black.
“As a black male, a team captain, and the leader of the group that performed the skit, I should have understood that (the) KKK and Confederate symbols are not funny in any context,” Aldrin wrote. “We hope the campus community will forgive us for our actions.”
Aldrin added that “our error was thinking that the KKK and Confederate symbols would be understood in the satirical way we intended, and we did not fully consider the hurtful meanings these symbols carry and the terrible evil that has been carried out under them. We, as a team, now understand this skit was inappropriate and offensive.”
“We failed the team and campus in our responsibility of ensuring that members of the football team were living up to the standard of moral behavior that is expected of us as Christians, campus leaders, and mentors of students on this campus,” the two coaches wrote. “We recognize that the events that occurred are racially insensitive, regardless of the intent of the group leadership, and want to express our deep regret for allowing this to occur. We intend to use this as a personal learning experience.”
Freshman Charissa Fort, 18, said she was frustrated when she heard about what happened.
“I’m not surprised that something like this happened, but I’m surprised it happened here, where I’m in close proximity to it,” Fort said. “Prejudice — I’m not saying that’s what this was — but prejudice happens all the time. It doesn’t just stop because of civil rights. It’s a process.”
In the issued statement, college officials said they preserved a copy of footage of the incident. “Given the inherently hurtful and shocking nature of any images of the event, and the complexities of their context,” college leaders have asked that those images not be disseminated, according to the statement.
Ryken and the college’s director of multicultural development, Rodney Sisco, met with African-American and other students to discuss the incident the day after it happened, while more than 700 students met in the college’s Pierce Chapel to worship and pray for healing in the wake of the three recent incidents at the college. On Monday night, Swider and a college official met with the football team to “begin helping them understand how their decisions impacted others on campus,” according to the college’s statement.
In a note emailed to the campus community this week, Ryken asked the community to “allow campus leaders sufficient time to process difficult issues and determine how best to work towards reconciliation. One way that you can help is by exercising restraint in the use of social media.”
Junior Janice Leung learned of the event through Ryken’s campuswide email and called the skit “insensitive.”
“It’s a problem here that we surround ourselves with like-minded people and we’re not engaged in dialogues with people who are different from us,” Leung said. “It speaks to an overall problem of students being divided and being unable to compromise and be open to people who have different opinions.”
In his statement to the Tribune, Ryken expressed optimism about the future.
“Some good things are also happening,” he wrote. “Many students have been gathering for prayer and reaching out to people who are hurting. I sense that the student body has a deep hunger to become a more loving community.”
Copyright © 2015, Chicago Tribune
My generation has managed to raise sons and daughters whose behavior is extraordinarily insensitive. But the fact is that the Church itself has found itself foundering in scandal after scandal to the point that we are no longer surprised with child molesters are standing in the pulpit of a Sunday. That in itself is a very real shame.
We have found ourselves as the Body of Christ devoid of any real Moral Authority. But that is not surprising either. Our religion has become an extension of our social organization (i.e. political affiliations, demographics, etc.)
This is a very sad day indeed.