By: Essence Buckman and Steele Smith, senior writers
Glenn Niles ’19, crowned as this year’s Mr. Wofford during Homecoming Week, explains the events following the costume portion of the competition. He describes that he was dressed as a welder performing a Magic Mike skit. In each round of the competition, individuals come out on stage, and afterwards all participants are brought back out together. The same song Niles danced to during his individual skit played during the group performance, so he decided to dance and engage with the crowd.
Niles describes one of the other contestants coming up behind him and handcuffing his right wrist.
“That’s when things got more serious because he proceeded to put his hands on me,” Niles says. “Then he proceeded to put me on the ground, tuck my arm around my back and place his knee on my back. That’s what pissed me off.” From what his peers have told him, Niles says that he believes the crowd watching noticed how upset he was.
“I was [dressed up as a] Black stripper and he was dressed up as a police officer,” Niles says. When backstage, Niles says he told the police officer to “get these fucking cuffs off of me.” Niles says that he believes in that moment that the police officer contestant realized that what he did was wrong. “I looked at the judges. I looked at the crowd. I saw mixed emotions,” he says.
Niles’ account of the reaction of the crowd is reflective of his perception that what happened to him was not acceptable. While the debate can persist on whether the act against Niles was intended in the negative way some have interpreted it, the nature of what the episode says about Wofford and our nation as a whole is more important.
Wofford is a community of many different people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. It is important that, as an institution of higher education, discussions about how those backgrounds inform our actions, decisions and perceptions of events are able to take place. This year’s Mr. Wofford competition provided such an opportunity as interpretations of some of the festivities are mixed following a particularly race-y bit of attempted humor.
Niles brings up that he later gained a different perception of the situation. “He was dressed up as a gay police officer from the TV show Reno 911. I started to believe, rather than it be a race issue, it was just him showing off his sex appeal.” Niles says that they have hashed it out, and the police officer contestant continually apologized, which is something that Niles can respect.
This sort of open dialogue is necessary to improve interracial and interethnic communication, according to Dr. Jim Neighbors, associate professor of English.
“Part of what fuels basic misunderstandings between people of different races and ethnicities or difference in general, is the unwillingness to talk about dangerous, potentially divisive incidents,” says Neighbors.
The contestant who was the police officer was contacted. He initially was eager to talk about the situation, which he regards as “wildly offensive and outrageously justified.”
“I’m going to tell you. This entire thing is outrageous,” he says, “I have talked to Glenn and several of my African American friends who were there, and all of this was cleared up the night of.”
However, when trying to plan a meeting with the contestant to give him the chance to tell his side of the story, he changed his mind. He says: “This topic has been resolved and has no reason to be made public. It was a misunderstanding.”
So why can’t we talk about this situation? Why does it have to be swept under the rug? Why is this topic so uncomfortable to discuss?
“I’m assuming that generally speaking, people are afraid of creating division, hard feelings, and misunderstandings that lead to hard feelings,” Neighbors says, “…so I think after something like the incident [at the Mr. Wofford competition] happens, people would be more inclined to talk about it soon after because its urgent and they are upset. But as time passes, they just prefer for it to disappear, so they don’t have to confront it.”
“I was upset at first, I was upset when I won because I thought it was pity at first,” Niles says, “then I was initially upset that he was second place. But I think people on this campus feel a lot more strongly about it than I do at this point.”
Niles references other students who have continued to discuss the events that occurred at Mr. Wofford, often trying to incite conversation.
“Obviously in our country, there have been various incidents of police brutality against Black males or unjust arrests,” says Brianna Ashford-Carroll ’19, a self-identifying Black woman. ‘This may not have occurred to [the police officer contestant], but the fact that he violated Glenn’s personal space in public meant that he didn’t have to think about implications of his actions.”
Overall, some students believe this experience can teach a valuable lesson to the college community, one that is based on diversity of perspectives and how people need to be more conscious and accepting of others’ views.