Updated: Feb. 9, 2019 at 11:27 a.m.
A Student Association senator is trying to restart the push to change the Colonials nickname after the debate – which engaged hundreds of students and alumni last spring – fizzled out last semester.
SA Sen. Hayley Margolis, CCAS-U, will host an academic panel Wednesday at 7 p.m. in the Marvin Center Presentation Room, where three faculty members and a former Tanzanian ambassador will discuss the history of colonialism. Margolis said she wants to move the discussion about the nickname past a “casual conversation” and educate officials and students on the negative impact that the name carries for students from countries that have seen the effects of colonialism.
“I think that’s a really good way to start that conversation on campus,” she said. “When we talk about the Colonial in history, what does it mean? And is that really what we want our school identity to be?”
Students launched a petition last spring calling on the University to switch the Colonials nickname to something less offensive, like GW’s unofficial mascot, the hippo. SA President Ashley Le urged officials to listen to students’ demand in a statement last May.
Margolis said she will moderate the panel and facilitate a question and answer session from members of the audience with Sen. Amy Martin, ESIA-U, and Lauren Bordeaux, the College Democrats’ freshman representative for the Mount Vernon Campus. Margolis said she will also collect students’ contact information after the event and follow up with them to announce future events, which could include panels or open forums about the topic.
She said having the Colonials as the University’s team name may discourage students from having “inclusive” school spirit because the moniker could be associated with ethnophobia – the hatred of a different race – and oppression.
“We’re a very diverse institution,” Margolis said. “There are students that, if we were back in Colonial times, wouldn’t have been represented or treated equally. School spirit is something that should be based on equality.”
Margolis said she wants the panel to create a more “official” conversation about the issue because it will be the first time faculty, students and officials will be in the same room discussing the topic. As of Sunday, 65 people indicated interest and 31 said they would attend the event on Facebook.
Dean of the Student Experience Cissy Petty said she was invited to the event and will attend to “hear student feedback and opinion regarding the University’s mascot.” She said the panel is an opportunity for her to listen to more student opinions on the topic outside of her discussions with SA leaders.
“As with any SA-led initiative, we are here to help guide them as they formulate their ideas and proposals,” Petty said in an email. “We are open to continuing our discussions with the SA leadership as they further explore this topic.”
She declined to say whether she supports changing the Colonials nickname and how she will work with students after the event.
Fran Buntman, an associate professor of sociology who will speak at the event, said she will share her experiences growing up in South Africa during Apartheid, which sanctioned racial segregation between 1948 and 1994, to educate domestic students about the real-life impact of colonialism.
She added that the term “colonialism” is often misattributed to President George Washington’s era, but Washington was an anti-Colonial who led an army of revolutionaries against British control of the 13 colonies.
“It’s always mystified me as to why GW would want to be associated with the idea of colonialism, let alone celebrate it,” Buntman said.
Buntman added that she wants to remain neutral on the topic as she speaks on the panel so students and officials can hear a solely educational perspective on the topic and form their own opinions.
“I do think I need to help them understand what a word means that they are embracing,” she said. “I think sometimes, we don’t know the history of something, and when we know that, it makes a difference to what we think about it.”
Dane Kennedy, a history and international affairs professor who will sit on the panel, said he wants to inform students about the racial connotations of colonialism, given that the word often refers to a group of white people oppressing minority groups, like Native or African Americans.
“All I can say is that it is a term that has associations that we might not want to have GW associated with,” he said. “The past is with us. The past is useful as a way of making sense of the present.”
This post was updated to reflect the following corrections:
The Hatchet incorrectly reported that the petition to change the Colonial nickname launched last semester. It launched last spring. The Hatchet also incorrectly reported that Lauren Bordeaux is a freshman representative for the SA. She is a freshman representative for the College Democrats. We regret these errors.