When Makala McNeil, a University of Mississippi student who is President of Alpha Kappa Alpha -- a historically black sorority -- spotted a discarded banana peel hanging in a tree, she expected the worst. According to Campus Reform, McNeil recalled that when she and two friends saw the banana peel on Saturday, “The overall tone was heavy. I mean, we were talking about race in Mississippi and in the Greek community so there’s a lot involved.” McNeil said “It was so strange and surreal to see it there. She added that she and her companions became "just sort of paranoid for a second," once they saw the discarded fruit.

McNeil discovered the discarded banana peel during a three-day Greek Life retreat for “Ole Miss” frats, when students seek admission to the various college fraternities. The tree that was festooned with the fresh banana peel was approximately 15 feet away from McNeil when she saw it. Once McNeil returned to her AKA sisters, some of them became concern. Some left the retreat weeping, having concluded that they were witnessing racism. They told organizers of the Greek retreat that they "didn't feel safe" and "didn't feel welcome."

As a result, organizers cancelled Greek Life activities for this past weekend at Camp Hopewell in Lafayette County, Mississippi. During an agitated discussion that was unleashed at the camp because of the discovery, senior accounting student Ryan Swanson fessed up to having thrown the banana peel into the tree because he could not find a waste bin nearby. 

In a letter to fraternity and sorority chapter presidents, council officers, and chapter advisers on campus, Interim Director of Fraternity and Sorority Life Director Alexa Lee Arndt said that she was acting in an administrative capacity at the weekend retreat, and confirmed the incident. In the letter, Arndt wrote “To be clear, many members of our community were hurt, frightened, and upset by what occurred at IMPACT … Because of the underlying reality many students of color endure on a daily basis, the conversation manifested into a larger conversation about race relations today at the University of Mississippi.” 

A photo of the offending fruit peel circulated widely over the weekend on social media. 

McNeil said that on the campus of American University in Washington DC in May, when the first black female student government president was to take office, bananas were found hanging from nooses throughout the urban campus. Some of the bananas bore the letters AKA, a clear reference to the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority to which the incoming student body president belonged. For McNeil, seeing the banana peel was a “slap in the face.”

In her letter, Arndt wrote: “As the staff member responsible for the wellbeing of our community, I felt it was imperative to provide space immediately to students affected by this incident to allow them an opportunity to voice their pain and concern.” When a black student stood up and explained that bananas have been used in the past to taunt blacks, another student simply asked who put the peel in the tree. 

Swanson, the offending white male student, stood up and apologized. In a statement to a campus newspaper, Swanson “I want to sincerely apologize for the events that took place this past weekend,” and added that while throwing the peel into the tree was “unintentional” he felt that there is “no excuse for the pain that was caused to members of our community.”

For McNeil, actions speak louder than words. “You see how much fear and how much anger you incite in black people just from an unintentional image,” she said. 

In a Thursday op-ed at the Daily Mississippian, McNeil wrote:

Regardless whether last weekend’s incident was an honest mistake or a malicious threat, our response as black Greeks at the University of Mississippi was valid and authentic, especially given the present state of race relations in our country and at our university.  

Our community must recognize an uncomfortable reality: that this incident is indicative of a broader campus culture. Since the article’s publication, critics have claimed that NPHC members fabricated or exaggerated the impact caused by a banana.

Yet, what they so easily overlook is that within the past four years, students placed a noose on James Meredith’s statue, klansmen marched on our campus and a community member alluded to lynching black people in online comments.

It is no exaggeration to say that black students often feel as though they are under attack. We must confront a culture that dismisses black experiences, supporting the notion that constructive dialogue can actually foster a level of cultural understanding amongst different races.

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Spero News writer Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.

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