Homecoming Theme Expanded After Complaints of Racial Insensitivity

Senior Nora Smulson and junior Joey Wasserman, the Spirit Committee co-heads, collect payments for homecoming tickets in the Internet Cafe. Photo by Olivia Brown.

In an email sent on Sept. 16 announcing the daily themes of Spirit Week, senior and Spirit Committee co-head Nora Smulson announced that this year’s homecoming theme would be rodeo-formal. But due to complaints from students, the theme was changed so that attendees could wear whatever they wanted—which could include clothing following the original theme. 

Last year, when Smulson and her former co-head, Ethan Cohen ’22, proposed a Wild Western theme for the dance, Smulson said the idea “got knocked down” by Assistant Principal for School Life Quinn Killy, who is the faculty advisor of the Spirit Committee. As a result of Killy’s reaction, Smulson said that this year, “going into rodeo, there was definitely a little bit of skepticism” as to whether it would be approved or not by administrators. 

Smulson said that before this year’s rodeo theme was announced to the high school, it was cleared by all of the grade deans and by Killy. “We started preparing for rodeo,” Smulson said, and added that there were discussions about the possibility of an electric bull and other Western-themed decorations.

About a week before homecoming, Smulson received an email from a junior who said they wouldn’t feel comfortable wearing rodeo-themed attire. Smulson explained that the email addressed the “racism behind” rodeos and their history of non-inclusion. “You can’t really argue with that,” she told the Bit. The junior did not respond to a request for an interview.

After she received the complaints, Smulson and her co-head, junior Joey Wasserman, got an email from Killy asking to discuss homecoming. “We kind of knew what it was going to be about. We definitely heard rumors,” Smulson said. “We assumed that it was going to be okay if it got cleared by the deans, but apparently it was not.”

“I think when you look up things about rodeo, you notice that the pictures and the themes are kind of all the same types of people,” Killy said in an interview with the  Bit. “People felt like it wasn’t super inclusive of everyone in our school.”

Smulson explained that the idea of the new homecoming theme was to have students “wear whatever they want,” but that they could still wear rodeo clothing if they felt comfortable with it. “It’s just that there’s other options,” she said. She formally announced the change in an email to high school students on the evening of Sept. 22. 

The dance was held on Saturday, Sept. 24 in the high school Black Box from 8:30 to 11 p.m. According to junior Avery Brown, students wore a wide variety of outfits; several stuck with the rodeo theme, wearing cowboy hats, bandanas and boots. Others chose to wear non-Western themed attire, which ranged from dresses and button-up shirts to hoodies and shorts. She estimated that around 60 percent of students wore rodeo-themed attire.

Sophomore Nora Sachse said she first heard about potential problems with the homecoming theme after receiving an email with concerns that was meant for Smulson. Sachse said that attached to the email was an article from the University of Chicago Press Journals “that talked about how the rodeo had a long history of racism.” 

Sachse said she did not personally find the theme offensive, but she acknowledged that she didn’t know much about rodeos or their historical background. She said she had been under the impression that people of color were well represented in the rodeo. “But obviously, if it makes students of color at GDS feel uncomfortable, we should change the theme,” she said. 

Senior Jacqueline Metzger said she was excited about the dance’s theme and thought it was creative, but she did have some hesitations. She said that when she looked up “rodeo girl” to get inspiration for her outfit, she saw “a sea of a very specific type of girl wearing a very specific type of outfit.” She said she felt disheartened, but also that she was used to the lack of representation when looking up specific outfit ideas. “Any woman of color, specifically Black girls, will tell you that all the time you’ll be looking up ‘Outfit, Black girl,’” she said. “It’s nothing new. So I wasn’t really fazed.”

Metzger said that she believed the students who complained about the theme had a point. “I think that there is some element of being made a spectacle if you are a woman of color in a southern rodeo outfit,” she said. “You are a Black girl wearing a rodeo outfit rather than you’re just wearing a rodeo outfit.”

Senior Lauren Petrilla said that she did not think a rodeo theme is “inherently offensive,” but believes that “it’s offensive if someone’s offended.” 

Instead of a “wear whatever you want” theme, Metzger said she thought that the Spirit Committee should have chosen a new theme to replace rodeo. “When you change the theme from something as specific and evocative as rodeo to ‘come as you are,’ people will still do rodeo and that does not necessarily address the underlying issues,” she said.