To the Occidental Community:
Former Occidental College Trustee Jenny Townsend wrote to the Oxy Community today apologizing for appearing in a blackface photo published in the 1984 Occidental yearbook. Board of Trustees Chair Susan Mallory ’76 M’78 and President Jonathan Veitch sent their own email message to campus discussing the photo and how the College and the Board will work with the Oxy community to address the issues it raises.
Fellow Members of the Occidental College Community,
By now you have probably heard about a picture from Occidental's 1984 yearbook that shows me and two others dressed as members of the Jackson 5 where I appear in blackface. I apologize for my actions, and I am deeply sorry for any pain my actions may have caused.
Two weeks ago I notified the Board I was resigning my position as Trustee, effective immediately. I don't want the College or anyone to be adversely affected because of the mistake that I made 35 years ago. I have been extremely grateful to serve on the Board of this prestigious College and be able to interact with so many talented and wonderful people including other members of the Board, administrators, faculty, students and athletes. Oxy is a special place, and I will always remain a supporter of the college.
I also hope my mistake will encourage a community dialogue, and that others will take the the opportunity to learn from my experiences.
At the time, I wasn't aware of the history and legacy that blackface and minstrelsy have in American history and culture. My friends and I were huge Michael Jackson fans--and we spent countless hours listening and dancing to his album, Thriller. We entered a talent show dressed up as the Jackson 5 and, in our minds, we were paying tribute to Michael Jackson and our love for his music. Knowing what I know now, my behavior was insensitive, disrespectful and wrong.
I have personally learned many lessons from this situation, and I hope that others in the broader Occidental community can learn from this. We all make mistakes, and we all do things that we subsequently regret. But we also have the capacity to learn from our mistakes, make amends and then get on with the important work of improving ourselves, our families, our communities, and our country. Learning from mistakes is difficult and certainly humbling, but I've also found that it's key to developing resilience.
In addition to these lessons, this experience has reinforced my appreciation for the importance of kindness; sensitivity to others; forgiveness; and, perhaps most of all, friendship.
During my six years as a volunteer on the Board of Trustees--and for several years prior to that as the Tiger Club representative for Women in Sports--I have been passionate about rebuilding athletics at Occidental. I am a dedicated champion for gender equity in sports at the College. My family made a gift to help build a new pool, and we spent six long years encouraging water polo and swimming alumni to match our gift in order to pay for this much-needed facility. As I step off the Board, I encourage those that are passionate about the important role that athletics plays in the liberal arts college experience to do their part in giving back to our alma mater.
I believe that making a mistake in life does not preclude you from being passionate about what you do, giving back, volunteering, and putting forth your best efforts to make the world a better place. In addition to my commitments to Occidental, I've also been proud to support a number of important charitable organizations that support women, teens and community needs.
In closing, let me reiterate that I apologize for my actions and I am deeply sorry for any pain these actions have caused. I am also grateful for the opportunity to learn from my mistakes, and to share what I have learned with my children and others. I hope that I will not be remembered for this one mistake but, rather, for how I have lived the entirety of my life. I am profoundly grateful for what I have learned as a member of the Occidental community, committed to the values of the college, and passionate about giving back to an institution that I love with all my heart.
To the Oxy Community:
Current national discourse has exposed the prevalence of racist images in college yearbooks. Sadly, Oxy is no exception. Recently, the College became aware of a photo in the 1984 La Encina that shows three students wearing blackface--part of their costume for a talent show for which they dressed up like members of the Jackson 5. That such a photo could be featured clearly shows a lamentable lack of awareness and sensitivity by the College and members of the Oxy community. Images of this kind, and the history and attitudes they represent, are antithetical to Occidental’s mission and values.
One of the students in the photo is Jenny Townsend, a senior at the time, and until recently a College trustee. Jenny has been forthright in dealing with this issue. She has apologized and expressed her profound regrets. Furthermore, because of her belief in the College and the values it stands for, on February 21 she informed the Board of her decision to resign as a trustee, effective immediately. The Board accepted her resignation, acknowledging Jenny’s record of involvement and leadership with Oxy and her community in the decades since her graduation.
In a letter to the Oxy community that she asked us to share with you, Jenny says in part, “I apologize for my actions and I am deeply sorry for any pain these actions have caused. I am also grateful for the opportunity to learn from my mistakes, and to share what I have learned with my children and others. I hope that I will not be remembered for this one mistake but, rather, for how I have lived the entirety of my life. I am profoundly grateful for what I have learned as a member of the Occidental Community, committed to the values of the college, and passionate about giving back to an institution that I love with all my heart.”
As disappointing as this photo is, to focus only on this incident would be to miss the larger and more important issues that still confront us at Oxy and in American society as a whole. Acknowledging and learning from this painful history is essential if we are to move beyond it. This is an opportunity to utilize our own scholarly expertise and examine Oxy’s history in a deliberate, thorough and clear-eyed way.
To this end, Dean Sternberg has been in discussion with faculty and ASOC leadership about how we might assess Oxy’s history, acknowledge how the past continues to shape the present, and find a way forward together. Whatever next steps we take, they will be determined with the participation of key campus stakeholders, including students.
We have asked Dean Sternberg and other senior staff to continue the consultation with faculty and students and report back to the community how we plan to move ahead. The Board also needs to be part of this process and will engage in a conversation with faculty and student representatives at its regular April meeting. We will update the campus as to the schedule.
We are hopeful that this process of self-reflection and facing hard truths will, in the long run, make Oxy a stronger, more inclusive institution better equipped to carry out our mission.
Susan Howell Mallory ’76 M’78
Chair, Occidental College Board of Trustees