Tennis Coach Faces Backlash Over Puerto Rican-Themed Costumes

Head Coach of Emory’s women’s tennis team Amy Bryant and her family’s Halloween costumes, which referenced Puerto Rico’s Whitefish scandal, drew the ire of some Emory community members Tuesday.

The caption posted on Bryant’s Facebook page, “Happy Halloween from 2 Puerto Rican boys wanting electricity and the 2 Whitefish Energy employees fixing it. #cashmoney #scam #wejustgotfired,” accompanied a picture of Bryant and her husband dressed as Whitefish Energy Holdings employees in suits carrying sacks of money and her two sons dressed as Puerto Rican children post-Hurricane Maria. The children carried matches, fishing rods, a net and empty jugs of water labeled “agua.”

When asked about Bryant’s costume, Senior Vice President and Dean of Campus Life Ajay Nair told the Wheel that he met with student leaders Tuesday afternoon about a staff member’s costume that he and the students deemed “inappropriate.”

“[The students and I] also agreed that we need to do better as an institution. Unfortunately, these incidents are not isolated,” Nair wrote in an Oct. 31 email to the Wheel. “The cumulative effect of these types of incidents has a devastating impact on marginalized communities.”

Bryant said she intended to satire Whitefish, a company that was contracted to repair Puerto Rico’s powergrid after the island was pummeled by Hurricane Maria, leaving 70 percent of its 3.4 million citizens without power. The contract was canceled by Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo A. Rossello Oct. 29 according to The New York Times.

The company has been criticized for having only two full-time employees at the time it was contracted to complete repairs that would require the work of thousands of individuals. In addition, scrutiny was placed on the contract between the small company and the Puerto Rican government due to connections between the company’s CEO Andy Techmanski and U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, according to the Times.

Bryant said the costumes were supposed to target “greed in government and politics.”

“We believe that Puerto Rico should have a legitimate company restoring their energy,” Bryant said. “There’s someone in Trump’s circle who’s from Whitefish, Mont., and that’s allegedly how they got the bid.

Bryant said she and her husband are frustrated with corruption in the federal government.

“The intention was to draw attention to the fact that Whitefish energy had two employees when they were hired to restore the entire island’s energy,” Bryant said. “That’s kind of ridiculous”

Bryant said she was approached by one student who was offended by the content of the costumes. She apologized to the student, stating that she felt “terrible” hearing what the student had to say.

“[The student] was very honest with me about how she felt … [and] I really appreciate her coming forward to me because when we picked our Halloween costume we didn’t even think that that was offensive to anyone,” Bryant said. “That’s a regrettable oversight on my part, and that certainly wasn’t my intent at all.”

In a later statement to the Wheel, Bryant continued to express remorse for the costume.

“The more I reflect on the situation, the more I realize how others were offended by our Halloween costumes,” Bryant said. “I understand the costumes were offensive to many members of the Emory community. It was poor judgement and I apologize.”

Nair released a Facebook statement Tuesday evening to express a “message of disappointment” and encourage “self-reflection and self-renewal.”

“This message is about intention vs. impact. No Halloween costume, however well-intentioned, can capture the plight of people facing such horrific circumstances,” Nair wrote. “My message also will fall short of capturing the trauma of oppressed peoples’ that we claim to understand through our privileged gazes of objectification.”

In the post, the dean urged the Emory community to work toward preventing “insensitive acts” and continue to partner with organizations to fundraise for Puerto Rico. He also wrote that the University plans to hold a community-wide conversation on “liberal racism.” Nair did not respond to the Wheel’s inquiry as to how he defined “liberal racism.”

Captain of Emory’s women’s tennis team Bridget Harding (18C) said she believes her coach had good intentions.

“From my understanding [the costume] was a call to action to help the people of Puerto Rico, but it was clearly not taken that way,” Harding said. “I think it’s a shame that it’s been blown up in this way and is shedding a light on her that’s inaccurate. She’s not the type of person that would ever target or purposely offend anyone.”

Harding added that Bryant has been a strong advocate for social justice issues in the past.

“[Bryant is] a huge proponent of the Emory Integrity Project, and she really gets Emory Athletics involved in talking about sexual assault,” Harding said. “She’s a huge advocate for social change and someone who people look to when they want a voice to be heard.”

Emory Puerto Rican Student Organization President Josue Rodriguez (20C) issued an Oct. 31 statement to the Wheel.

“We have been attentive to the recent controversy pertaining to a post from an Emory staff member. We understand that some students have felt hurt, as the situation in Puerto Rico is extremely precarious and delicate. Nevertheless, we would like to use this moment to emphasize our ongoing efforts to help our island recover. Nothing will distract us from this goal, and we encourage the supportive community at Emory to keep donating and helping us in any way possible,” the statement reads.

Bryant’s costume and Facebook post found its way online, and a tweet with the caption “white SuprEMORY!! twitter do your thing,” coupled with a screenshot of Bryant’s post and her email address and Emory phone number, has garnered 87 retweets and 50 likes by press time.

Adama Kamara (20C) said she saw a photo of Bryant’s family’s costumes via a tweet and found the contents to be “incredibly insensitive.”

“We all know what’s going on in Puerto Rico right now, and I think it was supposed to be a joke,” Kamara said. “It’s inappropriate to joke about something where people are suffering. Why would anyone think that’s OK?”

Kamara added that she believes Bryant should face repercussions for her actions.

“There becomes a problem when institutions are indifferent or complacent with people’s actions like this, and it could normalize [similar actions] for the future,” Kamara said. “An Emory employee shouldn’t be doing things like that.”

Michelle Lou contributed reporting.