Three Pitzer College students received harrassment and death threats following national news attention on a mural they painted reading “White Girl, Take Off Your Hoops,” on the college’s free art space.
According to Jacquelyn Aguilera PZ ’19, one of the artists, the piece came from desires for self-healing through art and to start a conversation at Pitzer around cultural appropriation.
Aguilera said the reaction on campus to the mural has been relatively positive.
“There’s been support from people who had seen this phenomenon [of cultural appropriation] going on. There were a lot of women of color or femmes of color who reached out to us to thank us for our art,” she said. “But there’s also been a lot of people who are uncomfortable and unwilling to have dialogue around the presence of people of color on campus as a result.”
Shortly after the murals was created, a student wrote an email to Student-Talk, Pitzer’s student listserv, asking for an explanation about why wearing hoops was problematic. After responding to the email, both Aguilera and Alegría Martinez PZ ’18, another student involved in the mural, were emailed requests for comment from a reporter at the Claremont Independent, a conservative-leaning publication at the Claremont Colleges.
The Independent ran an article titled “Pitzer College RA: White People Can’t Wear Hoop Earrings,” which was then republished on several conservative news websites across the country, including The Daily Caller, The National Review, and The Blaze, including the names of the Pitzer students.
After the article was picked up by other news outlets, Aguilera, Martinez, and the third muralist, Estefanía Gallo-Gonzalez PZ ’18, started to receive death threats over Facebook from outside the Claremont Colleges.
Aguilera said that the messages she has received have ranged from homophobic and anti-black comments to calls for ethnic cleansing. She said that she has felt more unsafe on campus since the article was published.
Martinez wrote in an email to TSL that she believes that people took their message so personally because they felt attacked when free speech was used to make people uncomfortable—because they felt “restricted and controlled, something they’d probably never felt before.”
Gallo-Gonzalez said that the outcry over the mural showed her that issues women of color and non-binary people of color face are not talked about clearly.
“People saw this message and didn’t understand why it was an issue to wear hoop earrings. People paid attention to that mural but not the mural that said ‘Protect Black Trans Lives’ which is also there, but people ignored that,” she said. “It just kind of shows that Pitzer students are not learning about race issues and gender issues in an intersectional way.”
Eric Owens, The Daily Caller’s education editor, defended his decision to run the article.
“I don’t feel that I did anything in any way ethically questionable,” he said.
Owens said the mural painters forfeited their right to privacy when they identified themselves on Student-Talk.
“When you do things like this, you make yourself public in relation to the thing which you did. To me, that’s a no-brainer.”
Matthew Reade PO ‘18, co-editor-in-chief of the Claremont Independent, defended his publication’s decision to publish the article, as well.
“The article that we wrote was objective and it presented the speech and it started a conversation, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” he said. “Our main goal is to speak to students about what is happening on their campus.”
However, he denounced those issuing death threats. “I think those people should be prosecuted,” he said. “The authorities … should put those people in jail.”
Elliot Dordick PZ ‘18, the author of the article, declined to comment.
In response to the Claremont Independent’s coverage, Aguilera, Martinez, and Gallo-Gonzalez, sent a statement to latinorebels.com describing their thoughts on the article.
“[The CI article] takes the situation out of context, sensationalizes the mural and puts young women of color in danger,” the statement read. “Also, the publishing of students’ names and affiliations has endangered the students outside of the institution. They now are facing harassment from ultra-right-wing groups and individuals, including a death threat through Facebook messenger.”
The “White girl, take off your hoops” mural was the third in the series of murals painted by the students. The first was “Latinx for Black lives” and the second was “Protect Black Trans women.”
Gallo-Gonzalez, Martinez, and Aguilera said that they originally started a campaign to take down the Claremont Independent, but according to Aguilera, they soon reached a consensus that focusing on the Claremont Independent rather than the campus climate and institutions “that allow for violence to occur towards PoC” is “unhelpful.”
“The problem is, that if we can get rid of the Claremont Independent, something like that can just show up again if the institutions are not protecting the students and creating a climate where it’s not ok to harass and endanger the lives of students of color,” Gallo-Gonzalez added.
In response to the death threats, Pitzer College President Melvin Oliver released a statement on March 9 condemning the harassment of students as threatening “the safety and well-being of every member of our community.”
“As a place of higher education, we strongly cherish and defend intellectual curiosity, productive discourse and opposing views that may broaden our perspectives as global citizens. However, when speech resorts to hate, violence and threats, we will not tolerate these acts nor the perpetrators of these actions,” he wrote.
Samuel Breslow contributed reporting.