Established 1826 — Oldest College Newspaper West of the Alleghenies

There's a difference between an excuse and an apology

The following reflects the majority opinion of the editorial board.

On Oct. 3, a screenshot of an Islamophobic GroupMe message was followed by the resignation of first year on-campus senator in Miami University’s Associated Student Government (ASG), Maxwell Hessling. 

In his message, Hessling wrote that “one of my favorite Halloween costumes lol” is a picture of a white child in Islamic clothing with a fake bomb strapped to his chest. 

We at The Miami Student believe this incident can serve as an example to members of ASG and the Miami community alike as to how crucial it is for all of us to expect far more from our elected officials, from our peers and from ourselves when it comes to taking personal accountability for ignorance, understanding the impact words can have and how to properly apologize and move forward.

Hessling’s message would have been offensive coming from any student on this campus. It’s perpetuating a racist stereotype that has subjected Muslim people to prejudice and alienation, and it absolutely should not be tolerated in our Miami community.

But Hessling’s words should be held to a higher standard due to his elected leadership position on our campus. 

Members of ASG are public figures on our campus. They represent our collective voice, and their behavior is a reflection of our university community. As the people they represent, we should hold them to a high standard and hope they understand the diverse members that make up their community and recognize the importance of acting with cultural sensitivity in mind.

Hessling’s resignation marks at least the third time in the last year that a member of ASG has resigned after a racist post was made public. And, while there are members of ASG making great efforts to improve diversity, inclusion and cultural sensitivity, it is infuriating to see this repeated abhorrent behavior from the people who represent us. 

We applaud the efforts of Speaker of Senate Sarah Siegel and ASG Secretary of Diversity and Inclusion Brandon Small to have a conversation with Hessling and attempt to show him the error of his ways. We agree that there is no way we can expect change if we don’t first show one another grace in the learning process of becoming a more educated and more aware individual. 

But it is impossible to educate an individual when they aren’t willing to acknowledge their own ignorance. 

During an interview, Hessling told one of our news editors that the message was taken out of context and that it was an instance of misunderstood sarcasm. He apologized to members of ASG and told them he had made a donation to the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). 

The most frustrating part of the whole interaction was that Hessling thought it necessary to bring a friend to his interview to act as a character reference. As a black Muslim, Hessling reasoned, his friend would be able to show our reporter that he couldn’t possibly be racist. 

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The best response to an incident like this is acknowledging the privilege and power you possess as a white person in a leadership position and understanding that power means you don’t know how it feels to be marginalized by the words you used. 

Take responsibility for the fact that these comments were in part due to a lack of self awareness and respect for the individuals impacted by your words. Resolve to educate yourself on why your words were offensive, and act more thoughtfully on behalf of those who do not have the power that you wield.

Use your power to lift up those who do not experience the same privilege, rather than them punch down. 

People will always make mistakes, and our staff believes that it is important to educate individuals on when their words or actions fail to live up to the standards we should all expect from one another. That is the best way to shift cultural perspective and hopefully eliminate ignorant and harmful discourse.

We hope that this incident doesn’t ultimately define Hessling, the rest of the ASG body or our student community. We are all responsible for recognizing our own privilege and holding each other accountable when we abuse it. 

But the first step toward moving forward, for Hessling and for all of us, is acknowledging the role we all play in making our community welcoming and inclusive to all.