By: Hamza Tariq, Breaking News Editor
Face-covering bandanas and fake dreadlocks are among the adornments banned for sophs by the orientation planning committee for this year’s O-Week.
The changes came into effect in August, four weeks before the start of O-Week. The guidelines are in place for all soph teams, including affiliate, residence and faculty teams.
The new rules have come under fire, with several current and former sophs criticizing the guidelines as overbearing and lacking input from sophs themselves.
What is OPC and how does it work?
The OPC is the central committee that organizes and oversees Western’s O-Week.
It is composed of student representatives from various organizations on campus and the university administration. The committee is based on a consensus model where input is sought from all members, and then the co-chairs move forward with the decision.
The current co-chairs of the OPC are Taryn Scripnick, University Students' Council vice-president student events, and Peggy Wakabayashi, director of residences for Western.
Students can approach members of the OPC to air their concerns. The committee then discusses these concerns and decides if they warrant further inquiry. In cases where they do, these concerns are passed on to a working committee that further debates the issues. The working committee then returns with its recommendations to the main committee and a decision is made collectively.
New soph uniform guidelines
Soph teams are banned from donning bandanas to cover their faces and wearing cultural or religious accessories as part of team uniforms. These accessories include, but are not limited to, fake dreadlocks, First Nations headdresses, mohawks, turbans and hijabs.
These guidelines, however, don’t apply to students who use these items as part of their cultural and religious identity. The prohibition only applies to the use of the items as collective team uniform accessories.
Teams are still permitted to incorporate fake hair as part of their uniforms. Bandanas are also allowed — as long as they are not used to cover faces.
Why the new guidelines?
The official rationale provided by the OPC for prohibiting face-covering bandanas is that they may be an unwelcoming image for first-year students and “it may disturb some incoming students that have come from countries where they have been exposed to violence and unrest.”
According to Scripnick, concerns regarding soph apparel were brought to the OPC by students and the amendments were implemented to address these concerns.
“The whole conversation came about because students did reach out to some members of the OPC,” she said.
Eddy Avila, orientation coordinator, expressed similar concerns.
“We have a lot of international students and certain students as well who don't see [bandanas] as the most inclusive environment for student leaders,” he said.
Incoming first-year students are often already quite nervous coming into university — so the OPC attempts to provide them the most welcoming environment possible, he added.
Fake dreadlocks have been a long-standing tradition for some soph teams during O-Week. The OPC guidelines recognized this fact but added that the use of fake dreadlocks can be considered degrading.
“Sporting dreadlocked hair as a costume can be seen as mimicking a hairstyle that may have cultural meaning to some – but not all – incoming students."
According to Wakabayashi, the committee believes that sophs have good intentions.
However, there has to be respect for the original meaning of cultural elements such as headdresses, turbans and dreadlocks.
“While the use of dreadlocks made of colourful synthetic fibres have been used by many of the Medway-Sydenham soph teams in recent years, OPC has concerns about their use for reasons of cultural appropriation,” she said.
Wakabayashi also spoke about the high cost of the dreadlocks paid by Med-Syd sophs. Some sophs have paid up to $70 for the hair accessory when they are only allowed a $100 uniform budget in total.
“Because of this significant cost, which may be either implicitly or explicitly expected of Med-Syd sophs to pay for as a hair adornment, it compromises the personal financial accessibility for sophs and is not in keeping with uniform price constraints as outlined in our guidelines.”
What do the sophs say?
Sophs have provided mixed reactions to the new guidelines. Several sophs spoke to The Gazette on the condition of anonymity due to the fact that they are under contract and feel fearful of speaking out against OPC's decisions.
According to Jenai Kershaw, head soph of FIMS, the moustache bandana had become an important tradition for the soph team and how they presented themselves to the orientation committee.
“We can’t repeat exactly what we’ve done in the past. However, we’re able to find ways to incorporate our meaning, values and image with new guidelines presented to us,” she said.
Kershaw stated the bandana would stay a part of the FIMS’ soph team uniform even though her team was somewhat thrown off by the new guidelines.
One social science soph was more critical of the OPC’s updated guidelines.
“I think the OPC should ponder the idea of where the line is on censorship,” he said. “They should come try to empathize with the understanding that going to extremes to help one feel welcome will almost always ending up making another feel unwelcome.”
The soph expressed support for the decision to prohibit First Nations headdresses, turbans and hijabs from team uniforms. However, he argued that dreadlocks and mohawks aren’t always worn for religious or cultural reasons.
“I argue that certain teams that incorporate these hairstyles and accessories do it for their own culture, especially teams such as Med-Syd and engineering.”
A former Med-Syd soph complained about how these guidelines were attempting to mark a black and white distinction on a grey issue without consulting those whom it affected the most.
“Sophs are some of the most aware people; we teach incoming first-years how to be more accepting, so I think it's ridiculous to say we're ‘making fun’ of certain cultures,” he said.
A former OPC member understood the purpose of the guidelines but also empathized with the sophs’ traditions and role in the decision-making process.
“I understand the purpose of the guidelines — Western is drawing more and more international students each year and so we need to obviously be sensitive of that,” he said.
He added that many soph teams are very rooted in tradition with regards to how they present themselves during O-Week and that they conduct themselves as a team. This often leaves a large number of people unhappy and feeling personally attacked when changes are made to their practices.
He further said that having a faculty head soph on the committee doesn't necessarily mean that they would be the best advocate for other soph teams.
“Ultimately, the program is first and foremost about the first-year students, but when you have unpaid volunteers devoting so much of their time to the cause, they … absolutely have the right to be upset with changes that affect them more so than they affect others.”
Andrea Hall, incumbent engineering head soph, said her soph team would not be commenting on the new guidelines.
Engineering soph teams are known for their unique demeanor during O-Week and bandanas are often given to team members who have “trouble keeping a straight face.”
According to another engineering soph, the new restrictions would affect the engineering soph team this fall, but they will find other means to solve the issue.
Mary Lee, head soph of Med-Syd, stated that she is currently having an "ongoing conversation" with the OPC and wanted to reach a finalized agreement before commenting on the new guidelines.
The OPC responds
Enforcement of these guidelines is still ambiguous and can be a grey area when it comes to individual expression.
“It’s honestly hard to differentiate,” Scripnick said. “We aren’t going to go up to anyone who has dreadlocks and getting angry and saying they are just outright doing it for O-Week, we are not going to police — we are not that sort of group.”
According to Avila, the main purpose of the guidelines was to make sure that the OPC and the sophs as a group weren’t encouraging a sense of cultural appropriation.
Avila added that the OPC has been trying to increase its transparency over the years. Every year, there are training sessions in the spring explaining the function of the OPC, including who sits on it and the representation on the committee.
The perception of a top-down mentality has been changing to address concerns, and more feedback is sought during training periods.
“It’s always tough as a governing body to stay as transparent as possible, but I think in the last few years we have tried really hard,” he said.
Scripnick said that while she understood and recognized the sophs’ concerns, the focus was still on the incoming first-years who were directly affected by these aspects of O-Week.
“First-years are our main target, and because we have had complaints from people who were past first-year students we wanted to make sure that they were the people who we were consulting the most.”
Wakabayashi believes that orientation at Western should be a welcoming and inclusive experience for the university’s diverse student body.
“OPC is not trying to stifle individual expression in its many forms,” she said. “By not mimicking these cultural expressions as part of the soph image/uniform, it enables individuals, including sophs, to practice their personal expression, whether it be religious, cultural or stylistic.”
O-Week 2015 commences on Sept. 8 and closing ceremonies are scheduled for Sept. 12.