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The Carletonian

Ebony II to change name, reactions mixed

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This Monday afternoon, an email went out to all students announcing the decision to change the name of the dance group Ebony II, after a protracted debate about the name’s controversy. The debate was re-energized after the release of a student documentary about Ebony II’s origins- along with student concerns. The announcement, which was made after a discussion meeting on Sunday, elicited mixed reactions. Some groups on campus were advocating for the name change while other groups were opposed. Yet, some students just reacted with confusion.

In the email, the directors of the group, Sami Saltzman ’16, Mike Bahn ’17, Abby Star ’16, and Allison Brown ’17, said to “please consider this a formal announcement that the group known as ‘Ebony II’ WILL be changing its name. We are taking steps to decide what our new name will be and will make necessary announcements rapidly.”

The directors acknowledge that “we know that the name of our group should have changed a long time ago. This is not an issue that started when we were elected. However, we should have opened our eyes and done something earlier to alleviate the pain our group is causing on campus.”

The name “Ebony II” comes from the original dance group started in 1973 on campus by Debra McCray ’76, which “started as a group for a Black History Week Observance program at Carleton,” according to the current directors. It “started small, with about 20 black students, specifically focusing on modern-jazz movement, with its members touring with Carleton’s Black Choir Inspirational Movement all over Minnesota,” said the directors. It has since then changed and expanded to include all students on campus and a wider variety of dance styles.

Jessie Lartigue ’18, BSA board member, explained that the Black Students Alliance (BSA) began discussions about the name after finding out about its history. “We got wind of the way the conversation was being handled and therefore everyone else got wind of it. The conversation started to escalate,” she said.

Since then BSA has had several talks about the issue, and “it is just something we were discussing, we weren’t trying to make it super public,” Lartigue explained, “because of all the backlash we were receiving we didn’t feel comfortable enough to make it a public thing.” Lartigue said that some members of BSA were worried that black students would be perceived as overreacting: “we didn’t want it to be like ‘oh black students are overreacting about something,’ and therefore dismissing our feelings about a certain subject, and I think that’s particularly why we didn’t open up to campus.”

“I just want to emphasize that I’m a black student but I don’t speak for every black person on this campus. We have a strong community but we’re individuals as well,” said Latiruge. “There are some people on this campus who didn’t care at all, which is fine, but people seem to think if one black person doesn’t care that means it shouldn’t matter for everyone else, and that’s definitely not true because if one person is offended that should be enough to start a conversation.”

This term, the directors brought up the issue, explaining the history of the name at the beginning of Ebony II practices and inviting everyone to a public discussion about the name last Sunday. Before the meeting, a document was sent to the Ebony listserv and other members of the community containing statements from anyone who wanted to write in about the name change and the group.

The conversation was led by Joy Kluttz, Director of the Office of Intercultural and International Life and was very emotionally heavy. About 30-40 students showed up with a few faculty and everyone was invited to express their perspective on the issue. The debate centered on whether or not to change the name, with the directors of the dance group choosing to remain outside the conversation in order to listen to what others had to say.

Many students in the meeting expressed problems with the name, saying they felt directly hurt by the connotations of the name and the changed racial make-up of the group since its conception. Ebony, several students pointed out, is a word used especially in black communities, to refer to black people or blackness itself, and “it’s not specifically for the black community, but it does mean black,” Lartigue clarified.

Students of color at the meeting explained that the use of the word for a majority white dance group seems like a fetishizing of black culture, taking on traits of the community while not actually living the experience of being black. Other students pointed out that the sexual nature of many Ebony II dances is problematic because connected with the name, it seems to play off of the culture of hyper-sexualization of black women in the media.

Debra McCray ’76, the founder of the group, has publicly expressed that she would “strongly oppose changing the name of Ebony II for any reason. Wanting to do so simply because of the make-up of current members makes no sense to me and, quite frankly is most upsetting. The goal [of the group] has not changed over the years…, as an outlet and opportunity for students to manage, direct, participate in, and as an avenue for creative expression.”

Participants in the discussion Sunday night did not think that the founder’s opinion was relevant to the current group. Thomas Hiura ’17 said he believes “the experience of current students matters more than upholding tradition” and pointed out that “we don’t give credence to other founders wishes in the same way when traditions and names cause harm in today’s society,” gesturing towards the row of portraits of the college’s presidents, which is often referred to as the “wall of dead white dudes.”

Lartigue echoed the sentiment, saying “[McCray hasn’t] been on this campus in four decades, [she does] not have the right to dictate how comfortable black students feel on campus, and not just black students, but all students. Ebony has changed; it’s been going on for four decades, how could it not have changed?”

Other arguments for keeping the name were that it was an important way to honor and recognize the history of the group. Professor Mary Easter, who helped found the group, wrote in a statement that “In these days of Black Lives Matter, who could miss the significance of Black History Matters? Black originators matter. To the current directors and participants in this group, I ask you to honor something other than the four years of your contemporary selves.” Some students, faculty or alumni of the group worry that changing the name feels like erasure of the historical make-up of the group and fails to honor the group and its history.

The make-up of the group is currently majority white and the purpose and style of dance is very different from when it was historically founded. Students at the discussion directly stated that students of color in the community are stopped from joining the dance group by the name, either because they are personally offended, or because the political nature of the issue in the community is something they do not want to engage.

The majority of voiced opinions at Sunday’s meeting were students of color expressing that the name should be changed. Lori Barrientos Sanchez ’18 said that “the Carleton community is too small for our classmates to be ignorant of the pain students of color feel at the hands of microaggressions such as the name of Ebony,” and not attempt to resolve that hurt.

The directors announced that “this is not the last conversation we would like to have about issues within our group. We are discerning how to best organize conversations about other issues and will proceed with those as soon as possible.”

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