To Santa Fe Preparatory School students Riel Bellow and Malik Saidi, the controversial Facebook event began as an innocent game of Capture the Flag.
“On the weekends, the only way we have fun is going to parties,” Bellow tells SFR. “It gets kind of old; we wish we could still get enjoyment out of the little things you enjoyed doing when you were a kid.”
Bellow and Saidi decided on an alternative: Capture the Flag, the classic summer-camp game in which two teams of players run around, trying to steal the other team’s hidden flag.
“We thought it’d be a really good idea,” Bellow says. In December, they created a public page to announce the event on Facebook. They named it “Playdate” and wrote a description that began: “An event for kindred spirits of all ages to come together.”
But it was the end of the description—“Costume is required, you are either team COWBOY or INDIAN!”—that caused an uproar.
On Feb. 18, Karen Rencountre (who is the New Mexico Gay-Straight Alliance program coordinator, but who stipulated in a conversation with SFR that she is speaking only as an individual) posted her concerns on the Facebook event page for Playdate.
“A monster sized game of capture the flag sounds like a lot of fun,” Rencountre writes. “With that said I would like to encourage folks to think about the consequences this may have on the community considering that this could be perceived as a very culturally insensitive and hurtful event.”
Rencountre added that, as a Native American, she was “feeling hurt.”
Saidi responded that same day, explaining that the game was intended to bring people together, not alienate Native Americans, and Bellow explained that she herself was half Native American. But the conflict had already begun.
“A couple of our friends wrote really offensive things, and it just made us all look really ignorant and awful,” Bellow says. “That was kind of upsetting.”
Rencountre says not just the event’s theme, but also those responses—including the suggestion that people who were offended “shut the f*** up and don’t come then”—concern her.
“I’m not judging these kids as individuals; I’m just really disappointed and see a lot of learning that needs to happen,” Rencountre says.
After Rencountre and others raised concerns, Bellow and Saidi say they considered changing the theme but ultimately decided to keep it.
“Having white people and indigenous people being able to come together and have fun and realizing the differences is really what it’s going to take for any progress to be made—realizing that you’re all equal but not forgetting what’s happened,” Bellow says.
But Monique Lacoste, the director of education and programming at Santa Fe’s Youth Media Project, says the “Cowboys and Indians” theme did just the opposite.
“What they’re doing is really creating an event that makes a bigger division in the community—when we know these divisions already exist, and they’re already painful and problematic,” Lacoste tells SFR.
The medium of Facebook, Lacoste says, only exacerbates a potentially poisonous situation.
“Social networking technology has made it so easy to put anything out there, and there is no sense of the consequences or the possible repercussions,” Lacoste says.
Miles Tokunow, the production team coordinator for YMP, says a misplaced sense of impunity comes with the technology.
“The key here is being able to talk to other people as people—making sure you’re seeing them as people,” Tokunow says. “That’s something that, with these online forums, doesn’t happen much.”
But Mikahla Beutler, the school counselor at Prep, tells SFR via email that, in her view, Facebook also provides “another forum for discourse.”
Beutler says while Playdate did not amount to cyberbullying, she asked the students involved “to reflect on why some people might consider the theme offensive.”
Still, Beutler emphasizes that “the intent and spirit of the event” were positive—a point Bellow and Saidi say became lost in the conflict.
“If we were like, ‘Let’s go play a game at the park that’s really childish,’ and we were singing ‘Ring Around the Rosy,’ are we making fun of all the people that died from the plague?” Bellow wonders. “You can find something bad in everything.”