A weekend fraternity retreat at the University of Mississippi ended early on Saturday because a student threw his banana peel away in a tree — and some students who saw it got “frightened” that the peel was a racist attack.
According to an article in the Daily Mississippian, three black students told National Pan-Hellenic Council leaders that they had seen a banana peel on a tree and that they were very upset about it. The leaders then shared their concerns with the rest of the camp, and one of the attendees, Ryan Swanson, admitted that he had placed the peel on the tree — explaining that he had actually not done so because he hates people of color and wants to intimidate them, but because he just couldn’t find a garbage can to put it in. But it didn’t end there: In fact, it prompted an entire day of “camp-wide conversation” about the racist “symbolism, intended or not” of the banana, a conversation that made some students feel so upset that they didn’t feel “safe” enough to stay, which ultimately led to the rest of the retreat being canceled altogether.
Swanson apologized in a statement to the school paper:
I want 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.
I want to thank my friends in the NPHC for their candid and constructive conversations that we have continued to have. I have much to learn and look forward to doing such and encourage all members of our university community to do the same. We must all keep in mind how our actions affect those around us differently.
Now, it’s not exactly clear why Swanson took the time to put the peel on a tree instead of just throwing it on the ground like a normal, lazy litterbug. What is clear, however, is that his decision wound up causing some pretty serious emotional devastation, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he never wanted even to be seen in a room with that fruit again.
The fallout, after all, was so serious that Alexa Lee Arndt, the university’s director of fraternity and sorority life, felt the need to send a letter to all of the chapter presidents, council officers, and chapter advisers:
To be clear, many members of our community were hurt, frightened, and upset by what occurred at IMPACT. . . . Because of the underlying reality many students of color endure on a daily basis, the conversation manifested into a larger conversation about race relations today at the University of Mississippi.
One of these “hurt, frightened” students was Makala McNeil, president of the historically black Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. According to the Daily Mississippian, McNeil said she saw the peel and felt like it “was a slap in the face,” adding that it had made her think about a recent incident at American University. In May, bananas hanging from nooses were discovered on trees on the morning that a student from Alpha Kappa Alpha was set to become the school’s first female black president.
That AU incident, of course, was incredibly racist, awful, and disturbing. It was an intentional, bigoted act, and certainly worthy of a campus conversation. This banana, however, was not hanging from a noose. It wasn’t even hanging from a branch, it was sort of just stuck to a stump on the trunk. Still, McNeil said that the way in which some of her fellow students had discussed the peel was upsetting enough in itself.
The school’s administration is reportedly working on a plan to help the students who are still coping.
“I just don’t feel as though it was being facilitated in a constructive way,” McNeil told the DM.
“At that point, we didn’t feel welcome; we didn’t feel safe,” McNeil continued. “If we didn’t feel wanted or safe at the camp, our best option was to leave.”
There are no reports of what exactly was said during the banana-peel-gate discussions that made some students so upset, but the school’s administration is reportedly working on a plan to help the students who are still coping.
“Right now, we’re just talking to people on campus who have some experience working across diversity to help the students process what happened,” Katrina Caldwell, vice chancellor for diversity and community engagement, told the DM.
Hopefully, Caldwell will be able to get the students through this and help prevent similar catastrophes from happening in the future. Seeing as the Daily Mississippian is reporting that bananas were actually provided as a breakfast option to the people at the retreat, perhaps she could start by requiring a bias-impact analysis of all foods being considered for future events. No student, after all, should have to endure such a traumatic experience ever again.