Addressing and Learning from Our Mistakes

by Andrea Traietti on July 15, 2020

Editor's Column

The Instagram post shared by @blackatpc, in which a 2017 alum recounted The Cowl’s response to an article that the paper had published earlier, which contained racist terminology.

On July 14, 2020 the Instagram account @blackatpc published a post detailing an incident that occurred in our organization in 2017. The post came from a member of the class of 2017 who worked for The Cowl at that time. In the post, the alum explained that The Cowl published an article which used racist terminology when referring to BIPOC. The alum further explained that the apology The Cowl issued following the publication of that article was inadequate, saying that the organization could not guarantee the mistake would not happen again. Lastly, the alum expressed that the editors of The Cowl at that time declined to work with professors from the sociology department who had offered to facilitate a discussion on race with members of The Cowl staff. 

First and foremost, we at The Cowl would like to thank the member of the class of 2017 who shared this information with the account @blackatpc, and we would also like to thank @blackatpc for the work they are doing to uplift the voices of our BIPOC community members and to enact change on our campus. 

None of the current members of The Cowl were attending the College at the time of this incident. However, it is our responsibility as The Cowl’s current administration to address the incident and The Cowl’s response to it, as well as the mistakes that previous administrations of The Cowl have made.

We wish that those editors would have taken advantage of a much-needed learning opportunity when the sociology professors offered to get involved. We can say with confidence that, had this incident taken place during our tenure as editors, we would enthusiastically and willingly accept the offer from those professors. Tomorrow, we will initiate a conversation with the sociology department to address this issue and begin a mutually-beneficial relationship to hopefully inform The Cowl for years to come. 

We look forward to being in touch with the sociology department and other on-campus groups and organizations in the near future, and we want to take immediate action in response to the post shared by @blackatpc. The Cowl condemns the offensive terminology and insensitive statements made in previous issues of The Cowl, especially in the article referenced by the 2017 alum, which referred to BIPOC as “colored people.” Additionally, we condemn the inadequate apology that The Cowl released in its March 2, 2017 issue following the publication of the article which contained the derogatory language.  

The problematic nature of this apology begins in the first line, as the use of “colored people” is described as a “misprint” instead of a mistake. The use of “misprint” implies that referring to BIPOC as “colored people” is some sort of grammatical error that slipped through rounds of copyediting. The use of this offensive term was not a “misprint,” but rather a mistake that never should have been made in the first place and which serves as evidence of general ignorance about the importance of inclusive terminology. 

The apology then addresses how using the wrong terminology is an issue on a “societal scale.” This is true, but in the nature of this apology, bringing up broad social issues seems to be a way to blame the mistakes of The Cowl on society itself. An adequate apology should not have attempted to broaden the issue without first addressing internal problems within The Cowl

Although the statement issued does explain the importance of using inclusive terminology and commits to improving on that front, any real attempt at this is then discredited by the startling use of “however” to begin the third paragraph. An adequate apology contains no “buts” or “howevers.” This paragraph insinuates that the members of The Cowl should be excused from the consequences of their mistakes because they have busy lives. It implies that the editors’ busy schedules were the reason for this error, rather than ignorance about the offensiveness of the terminology used. This characterization is best exemplified by this disturbing line: “We would also ask that you remember that we are also students with busy lives and preoccupations outside The Cowl office each week, which certainly does not help in the case of making mistakes.” The current Cowl administration understands that The Cowl makes mistakes. However, we are devoted to learning from those mistakes and correcting them in a timely and effective manner. We are appreciative of the fact that our predecessors acknowledged that they hoped to use their error as a way to learn; however, making a promise to learn and to do better should never have been accompanied by an excuse for what was clearly an issue of ignorance and carelessness. 

Lastly, and of particular concern to those of us currently on The Cowl, the statement makes reference to future members of The Cowl staff, saying “…We cannot speak for those who come after us…we can hope that they will be informed, but we can also expect that they will make their own mistakes and learn from them as we have.” We say to these writers: we are listening, we are learning, and we are ensuring that we are as fully informed as possible. We will not hide from correcting the mistakes of past Cowl administrations, or from addressing the inadequacy of past apologies and responses to issues like these. We know that no one is immune to making mistakes, and that we will certainly make mistakes going forward. We are ready to address those mistakes head-on, to apologize for them with no “buts” or “howevers,” and to ensure that our statements are used as a foundation for meaningful action and not empty promises. 

As for the necessary action behind these words, The Cowl started a dialogue surrounding discrimination against BIPOC on-campus and in the United States at large after the killing of George Floyd on May 25. In a statement issued by The Cowl on Instagram, we discussed our goals for the fall, “…such as focusing on diversity and inclusivity within our own organization and doing more to support and amplify diverse and historically marginalized voices in our content.” While the formation of these goals is long overdue, it is our responsibility to acknowledge the shortcomings of our organization no matter the time and vow to create change. Suggestions for diversifying The Cowl staff and content have come from all sections of the newspaper, indicating the unity of our organization in its pursuit of change.

This is just the start of what we understand needs to be a long-standing commitment towards taking action, but the following are the steps The Cowl has taken thus far to make improvements:

The Cowl has been in contact with Quincy Bevely, Assistant Vice President for Institutional Diversity for the Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (IDEI) at Providence College, since early June. Mr. Bevely, along with Nick Sailor ’17, Director of Training and Education for DEI, have happily agreed to work with The Cowl’s editorial and writing staff on future collaborations in accomplishing the efforts previously mentioned. We look forward to our conversations with them, and The Cowl is grateful for and appreciative of the Office of IDEI for their help.

Members of The Cowl’s staff have begun planning informational workshops and conversations going into this school year and continuing throughout the year with members of the IDEI department and any others who may want to be part of the conversation. These conversations will not be limited to just The Cowl’s editorial staff, but also The Cowl’s writing staff of around 80 PC students. These particular discussions amongst members of our staff will be geared towards designing and implementing plans to improve diversity and inclusion in our organization and in our content. 

Once again, these steps are merely a start, and it is our hope that these preliminary measures will set a foundation for even more meaningful action in the future. We must address our past mistakes in order to move forward with purpose and to create a better future for all students on our campus. We thank the members of our community, like the 2017 alum who reported this incident to @blackatpc, the administrators behind @blackatpc, and the countless other groups who are standing up and speaking out. We are grateful for their efforts to support BIPOC in our community and to amplify voices that have been marginalized for too long. In the College’s spirit of veritas, and in our own pursuit of truth as a student newspaper, we resolve to fight against ignorance and injustice wherever they occur, especially on our campus.