AU removed photos of students in Obama costumes

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Photos of a female student with her face painted black and dressed up as former president Barack Obama were removed from Instagram by AU’s social media editorial team. The senior management team supports the move.

2018.10.05 | Lene Ravn

It isn’t possible for Omnibus to publish a photo of the group of students that included a student dressed up like former president Barack Obama. The photos used to illustrate this article are from a public photo album of Aarhus BSS’ introduction week Western party this year. This is the same album in which AU’s social media editorial team decided to unpublish three photos of students dressed up as American Indians – photos which they decided to make public again after discussing the matter at an editorial meeting. Archival photos: AU Photo

 

What is allowed on AU's social media?

Special Consultant Ole Frank Nielsen responds here to questions about what photos are – and are not – acceptable to publish on AU’s social media channels. But he is not making judgements about what kinds of costumes students are or should be allowed to dress up in.

Students in costume throw a party with a concentration camp theme?

 “I think students at AU are too smart to do that, and I wouldn’t publish those photos either.” 

Donald Trump costumes?

“If you dress up as an overweight white man who spends too much time in a tanning bed? I don’t think that’s a question of racial stereotypes, it’s more about the person. But I can’t say definitively yes or no to the question of whether the university would publish that, because of course, we don’t want to put down heads of state in any way. But nobody would say that you’re displaying a stereotype of orange-haired men who spends too much time in a tanning bed.”

Indian costumes, as seen at Aarhus BSS’ Western party?

“Whereas the person in the Obama photo was standing alone, you can clearly see that this was a party in the Indian photo. So yes, of course you can. But you can also turn that around and say that if 20 people started complaining, we would reconsider it. Because if we can see that there’s a lot of response within the first five minutes, clearly we’ll look at whether it’s presenting AU in an inappropriate way. I wouldn’t take something out because someone’s dressed like an Indian, but because it doesn’t look like a party.”

Greenlander costume?

“I’m simply not going to answer these hypothetical questions. But of course, we would never dream of posting something that would demean a group which we also have at AU, as you know.

A male student in women’s clothes?

“Yes, unless they’re doing it to cheat at exams, that’s ok,” smiles Nielsen, who concludes: “It depends on whether they’re trying to put someone else down.”

How about the Tågekammer Saint Lucia’s Day celebration? 

(Saint Lucia’s day is a major Christian feast day in Scandinavia. In Denmark, Lucia processions are a traditional part of Advent, not only in church, but in schools, hospitals and other secular settings. The ‘Lucia bride’, dressed in white and wearing a crown of burning candles, is followed by a procession of young girls in white, holding candles and singing. Tågekammeret is the party committee at Science and Technology, and in their version of the Lucia procession, the lovely young girls are replaced by a mixed-sex group of science students in trainers, many with beards, ed.)

“They have a ‘fast track’ in our filter, and we usually show up with a camera every year, because it give such a great impression of what student life is like.” Personally, I’m not a fan of those legs (unshaven male legs, ed.), but that’s a question of taste, of course,” Nielsen smiles.

A female student, her face painted black. Wearing a dark blue pinstripe suit, a red T shirt, her hair tucked away under a large black wig. She is walking towards a group of seven other students in a receiving line who are holding small American flags and paper signs with slogans from the 2008 American presidential campaign, when Barack Obama was elected 44th president of the United States.The other students around them are clapping and smiling.

This is the scene shown in one of three photos AU doesn’t think you should see – in any case, not on the university’s official Instagram profile.  

On September 1st this year, the university’s social media editorial team posted the photos, along with numerous others from the introduction week festivities for new students in the University Park. But the university removed them later the same day.

Responsible for that decision was Ole Frank Nielsen, special consultant and member of AU’s social media team, who made the call after consulting with Anders Correll, AU’s head of press affairs. They agreed on the necessity of removing the three photos, on the ground that they were open to misinterpretation “out of context”, as Nielsen puts it.

What is it that people might misinterpret?

“Well, obviously, it’s not ok for Aarhus University to encourage prejudice or stereotypes in terms of race. We all have a right to be here without feeling that we’re being made fun of. I didn’t see it as a tribute when I saw it for the first time. What I saw was that some traits had been exaggerated.”

Nielsen did not wish to elaborate on what traits he was referring to. 

Is it the face paint that makes the difference?

“It’s the overall impression.”

What is it about this situation that’s out of bounds?

“You and I both know that none of these students mean anything bad by it, but we also know how an image can be interpreted. I would prefer not to get into details and explain what makes something stereotypical. I’m pretty sure that both you and your readers know.”

What if it were a black woman dressed up like Obama? 

“That’s speculation, and I can’t answer that. You’d have to consider that in the specific situation.”

These are the only photos you removed, so there has to be something about these photos specifically. Where’s the difference?

“We actually also took into account how our community (followers on Instagram, ed.) reacted. They saw it as something other than what it was. We took it down primarily out of consideration for the students who had the party at Media Studies, because we don’t doubt that they didn’t mean it the way you can interpret it when you see the photos without captions.”

Instagram followers react to the photos

The reactions to which Nielsen refers came from three of AU’s 15,800 Instagram followers, two of them AU students. 

One of the three wrote:

“Wow, no way, making blackface has never been ok. Really offensive in any case.” 

Another wrote:

“Shamelessly having blackface in the year 2018 in Denmark. Well done, AU. I can’t believe you let this happen.”

And the third sent a direct message:

“Don’t you think it’s a little out of bounds to post pictures of people in blackface?”

What all three statements have in common is the term ‘blackface’. ‘Blackface’ is a concept with roots in the 1820s in the United States, when white performers painted their faces black in so-called minstrel shows, a practice many perceive as racist.

Nielsen googled the concept, and after consulting with Head of Press Affairs Anders Correll, he removed the photos.

“We thought that the photos were so caricatured – I mean, big frizzy hair – and it was out of context. The decision wasn’t that difficult,” he says.

What is it that people might think when they see these photos?

“Well, if you’re coming from the outside, you might well think that Aarhus University is the kind of place where you represent different races in that way. Which is wrong, of course. It gives the wrong picture of student life here. It wasn’t censorship. That’s something we are constantly evaluating.”

Doesn’t want trouble

According to Nielsen, these are the first photos that have been removed because of comments – or complaints, if you will – from followers.

The photos were taken during the introduction week for new students on the media studies programme, and new students had been asked to come up with a costume theme based on a particular year. The group of female students in the photos had been assigned the year 2008. They considered a number of other themes before settling on the election campaign that led to Barack Obama’s election as 44th president.

As a student from the group explained to Omnibus, they hadn’t considered the extent to which anyone might consider their costumes offensive. However, she does not wish to make additional comments, as she is concerned that she might be misunderstood once again – just like with her costume.

The remaining students in the photos did not respond to our request for comment, and one of them has removed the photos of the same event from her own Instagram profile.

Censorship or not? 

Just a few days after he and Correll had decided to remove the photos of the costumed students, Nielsen again confronted a delicate situation. This time, the issue was Aarhus BSS’ Western party, also in connection with commencement of studies.Some of the students had been dressed up as American Indians, and the editorial team had posted photos on the social media Flickr.

When Nielsen saw them, he removed them from the university’s public page.

“I thought: ‘Can this be misunderstood in some way?’”

He wasn’t sure. So he brought the issue up at an editorial meeting:

“Because I actually had no idea where we stood in cases like this,” he says.

What made you think that you needed to consider this one?

“Well, it has something to do with that we’ve been through the other stuff (removal of photo of student dressed up as Obama, ed.) And that made me think that it’s good to get a second opinion. Because it was a photo where it didn’t really give the impression of being a party.”

Was the thought that this might be a stereotypical representation of Indians one of your considerations? 

“Yes, of course, that was somewhere or other in the back of my mind,” says Nielsen.

At the meeting, it was decided to post the photos publicly again. Head of Press Affairs Anders Correll explains the rationale for that decision:

“Every time we have these situations, it’s never a black-and-white issue – don’t get me wrong. It’s not that there can’t be any room for doubt. But I think that these photos were contextualized appropriately and what was happening was explained.” 

Are you allowed to dress up like an American Indian? 

It may be useful to think about the case of the photos of the student dressed up like Obama in the light of the recent debate at the University of Copenhagen, whose executive management adopted a zero tolerance policy this past summer. It lead to that the UCPHlaw tutors, who was planning to dress up as Mexicans and American Indians, was urged to ‘take a look at the costume categories once again in order to make sure that the themes lived up to the faculty values and not discrimination’.AU doesn’t have a policy like this.

According to Correll, in the case of the Obama costume photos, he informed the senior management team that the photos had been removed. And that the senior management team supported that decision. 

But what about the students who chose to single out the election of the first black president of the United States, among all the events of 2009? Did they do something wrong because one of them painted her face black in connection with the theme they chose? 

“I’m not going to judge that. We removed the photo, and we think that was the right decision.”

There’s nowhere where you can look up what people can and cannot dress up as, explains the head of press affairs.

So you don’t have any guidelines to navigate after?

“We have general rules and policies at AU, and if I’m in doubt, I discuss it with our chief legal counsel. And ultimately, I also confer with the senior management. This is not just based on a gut feeling.”

Is there any discussion about the need for specific rules for social media or a photo policy at AU?

“I don’t think that will happen, but let the code of conduct committee do its job now, and then we’ll see where that ends up.”

The code of conduct committee Correll is referring to here was appointed by the senior management team. The committee has been tasked with laying down guidelines for university employees, so that there will be a fixed procedure to follow when students or employees report harassment, bullying, violence or discrimination. As yet, there have been no announcements that the university intends to set guidelines for its social media channels.  

What is allowed on AU's social media?

Special Consultant Ole Frank Nielsen responds here to questions about what photos are – and are not – acceptable to publish on AU’s social media channels. But he is not making judgements about what kinds of costumes students are or should be allowed to dress up in.

Students in costume throw a party with a concentration camp theme?

“I think students at AU are too smart to do that, and I wouldn’t publish those photos either.” 

Donald Trump costumes?

“If you dress up as an overweight white man who spends too much time in a tanning bed? I don’t think that’s a question of racial stereotypes, it’s more about the person. But I can’t say definitively yes or no to the question of whether the university would publish that, because of course, we don’t want to put down heads of state in any way. But nobody would say that you’re displaying a stereotype of orange-haired men who spends too much time in a tanning bed.” 

Indian costumes, as seen at Aarhus BSS’ Western party?

“Whereas the person in the Obama photo was standing alone, you can clearly see that this was a party in the Indian photo. So yes, of course you can. But you can also turn that around and say that if 20 people started complaining, we would reconsider it. Because if we can see that there’s a lot of response within the first five minutes, clearly we’ll look at whether it’s presenting AU in an inappropriate way. I wouldn’t take something out because someone’s dressed like an Indian, but because it doesn’t look like a party.”

Greenlander costume?

“I’m simply not going to answer these hypothetical questions. But of course, we would never dream of posting something that would demean a group which we also have at AU, as you know.

A male student in women’s clothes?

“Yes, unless they’re doing it to cheat at exams, that’s ok,” smiles Nielsen, who concludes: “It depends on whether they’re trying to put someone else down.”

How about the Tågekammer Saint Lucia’s Day celebration? 

(Saint Lucia’s day is a major Christian feast day in Scandinavia. In Denmark, Lucia processions are a traditional part of Advent, not only in church, but in schools, hospitals and other secular settings. The ‘Lucia bride’, dressed in white and wearing a crown of burning candles, is followed by a procession of young girls in white, holding candles and singing. Tågekammeret is the party committee at Science and Technology, and in their version of the Lucia procession, the lovely young girls are replaced by a mixed-sex group of science students in trainers, many with beards, ed.)

“They have a ‘fast track’ in our filter, and we usually show up with a camera every year, because it give such a great impression of what student life is like.” Personally, I’m not a fan of those legs (unshaven male legs, ed.), but that’s a question of taste, of course,” Nielsen smiles.

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Revised 19.10.2018