Fact Check

Bowdoin Mini Sombrero Controversy

A cultural sensitivity controversy at Bowdoin College was misconstrued to suggest that mini sombreros offended oversensitive students.

Published Mar 8, 2016

Students at Bowdoin College in Maine were offered counseling because a party involved mini sombreros.
What's True

In February 2016, a controversy arose at Bowdoin College over cultural sensitivity and a tequila party; Bowdoin officials stated that subsequent harassment (not sombreros) were the cause of the controversy.

What's False

Students were offered counseling over the presence of "mini sombreros."

What's Undetermined

The specifics of the controversy, due to considerations of confidentiality.

On 6 March 2016, British web site The Independent published an article that reported students at Bowdoin College were "injured and affected" by the presence of tiny sombreros at a tequila-themed birthday party:

The row, which erupted at Bowdoin College, a private liberal arts college in the US state of Maine, is being seen as the latest instance of a new mood of censorious political correctness sweeping university campuses on both sides of the Atlantic.

After photos of party-goers wearing the miniature sombreros, several inches in diameter, appeared on social media, administrators at the college immediately sent out multiple emails notifying students about an “investigation” into a possible “act of ethnic stereotyping”.

The coverage appeared inspired by a 2 March 2016 story in National Review Online: 

Some students wore sombreros to a tequila-themed birthday party at Bowdoin College — and others were so offended that the school had to provide them with safe spaces and counseling to deal with it. According to the school’s newspaper, the Bowdoin Orient, the e-mail invitation to the event called it “a ‘tequila’ party” and then added, “we’re not saying it’s a fiesta, but we’re also not not saying that :) (we’re not saying that).”

This phrasing was, presumably, aiming to poke fun at the way the PC police often lose their minds over pretty much any party where tequila is present — which wound up being exactly what happened with this one. Yep. According to the Orient, one student (1) reported that some of the attendees had been wearing sombreros at the same time as they were drinking tequila at the party, and all hell broke loose.

The way the story was reported in both National Review Online and The Independent implied that students were so aghast at the presence of tiny hats at a party that they required special treatment.  However, the issue was much more nuanced.

A statement from the Bowdoin Student Government mentioned counseling, but not because of tequila or sombreros.  Instead, it detailed what the student government called a pattern of cultural appropriation and a "stream of anonymous attacks regarding the incident [which] occurred in the aftermath."

Despite many mentions of "counseling" and "safe space" being efforts specifically made by the university, an article published in the Bowdoin student newspaper on 26 February 2016 explicitly stated that the controversy occurred between students and that they were seeking a response from the administration:

Several Mexican and Mexican-American students expressed exhaustion and frustration at the public comment time at Wednesday night’s Bowdoin Student Government (BSG) meeting. “As a senior who has seen multiple racist incidents at this college, I’m at the point now where I’m really, really tired,” said BSG Vice President for Student Government Affairs Michelle Kruk ’16.

“What happened last weekend completely distorted what I stand for, what I embody and what I fight for. That was wrong, especially in light of what happened last semester,” said Bill De La Rosa ’16.

Last semester, the sailing team’s “gangster” party, where students wore costumes of stereotypical African-American apparel and accessories, prompted a wave of conversation and protest about issues of race on campus. In fall 2014, the lacrosse team’s “Cracksgiving” party, where students wore Native American costumes, resulted in the discipline of several individual students....

The administration has not yet announced how or if it will respond to the incident.

A 4 March 2016 statement from Bowdoin College President Clayon Rose (which was available two days before The Independent published its article about the purported sombrero-related counseling, although it was not included in the article) confirmed that the actual controversy was not about either choice in drinks or hats of any size:

There is currently commentary in the press and social media about a “tequila party” on campus and the reactions of students and the administration. Some aspects of what has been reported have been accurate, others have not, and some facts and context are missing. Because of our legal obligation to protect student confidentiality, I cannot comment specifically on this party, although I will say that the issues we are dealing with are not really about hats or drinks.

In the past, National Review Online published similarly inaccurate claims about manspreading arrests, a non-existent backlash over Adele's white privilege, and that Halloween was "banned" in Connecticut because it potentially offended people.

Kim LaCapria is a former writer for Snopes.