Like plenty of stories today (i.e. circa the Internet, social media, etc.), word of a "Cowboys and Indians" party at The Rhino bar in Toronto snowballed through Toronto media this week. And like plenty more stories, the resulting coverage may have missed the mark.
First there was a Storify curated by @LadySnarksAlot, which painted a portrait of racially insensitive drunken cavorting and corresponding e-backlash. Then, on Tuesday, the National Post reported on it, mostly by turning that Storify into a piece of quasi-reporting including quotes from the bar's management taken from a response posted on their website. On Wednesday, the Toronto Star got their teeth into the story, saying something about a "horde of outraged social media users [who] crashed the Parkdale bar" in "flash protest."
The general narrative that emerged was this: partiers dressed in tasteless "Cowboys and Indians" costumes arrived at The Rhino and, because of social media and the Internet and it being 2013, technology allowed "protesters" to "mobilize in response" instantly.
But is this really what happened?
Not according to Lance Morrison, who was at the bar the night of the party, mentioned (however incidentally) in several news items that emerged, featured in photographs that have cropped up, and quoted (rather liberally, he says) in the Star's report.
"Nothing really happened," Morrison told us. "That's the funniest thing. Nothing happened."
Morrison is identified in the Post story as a "man who reportedly hopped a $30 cab ride to get [to the bar] as soon as possible" in order that he be able to "express [his] horror in person." But by his recollection, he was more curious than horrified. After his friend, Victoria Vaughn, texted Morrison (a Canadian who is half-Cree) to tell him about the party, he decided to check it out.
"They got it all from Twitter," Morrison says of the news coverage. "Really, I'm just a little too princess-y to take the subway all that far. I live near Yonge and Bloor, but didn't want to subway over [to Parkdale]. I didn't know what bus to take. So I just hopped in a cab and made some comment about a $30 cab ride. Then all of a sudden it was, ‘Mad Indian flying across the city in a taxi!'"
Morrison raises a compelling point. For a story that's circulated around ideas of racial misrepresentation, the bulk of media coverage has proceeded from its own misrepresentative assumptions: pitting the toe-headed partiers against reactionary protestors forking over dozens of dollars on cab fare to indulge their own horror. From Morrison's on-the-ground perspective, the evening unfolded differently.
"There was not a mob of 30 angry protesters," he says. "There were, at most, ten people. And none of them were angry." Instead, Morrison and his friends spoke convivially with the headdress-wearing, warpaint-smeared Rhino patrons, outlining their concerns. Vaughn even returned to her nearby apartment to print out copies of a CNN article outlining the "We're a culture, not a costume" flyering campaign initiated by students at Ohio University last October.
"We were offended," says Morrison. "But it was never, ‘I'm offended because you're being racist.' It was just ignorance. Ignorance in the sense that they were uneducated. And if ignorance is anything, it's a chance to educate somebody."
For Morrison, much of the "angry," "mobilized" action was transpiring almost exclusively on twitter, not in the bar itself. Take Alexis Brett, who tweeted from the bar Saturday night before decamping elsewhere. She arrived around 9:30 pm to meet her fiancé, noticed the offending party, and quickly headed for the exit.
"We saw the party in there and decided to leave," she says. "It was a large group and they were very spirited, let's say. So we just basically packed it up and went to a different bar when we saw them there."
Brett's sense was that, by admitting and serving these people, The Rhino was tacitly endorsing the party, at the expense of making other patrons uncomfortable.
While Brett admits that she barely interacted with anyone in the party, the "tone-deaf choice" of their costuming made her immediately uneasy. "I can't say what's in their hearts," she says. "But at the same time, they're probably not sympathetic, kind, open people; the kind of people you want to spend and evening celebrating with."
Morrison, on the other hand, did get a chance to talk to them. And even sway some minds.
"They were absolutely receptive," Morrison says of the costumed partiers. "Nobody fought back. Nobody raised their voices. We didn't even tell them to take off their costumes...I went to the bathroom and was washing my hands and saw makeup in the sink. People had started to wash off their makeup. It was amazing. It was totally peaceful."
The story being presented this week is one of swift outrage, both on twitter and in person. It's one that opportunistically occludes what (by Morrison's account) became a positive dialogue between a group of adults oblivious of their broad racial caricaturing and another group resolved to educating them. A shallow, on-trend story about the capability of social media to mobilize outrage has overshadowed the less hobnailed narrative of sentient adults respectfully challenging each others' social and political assumptions - all happening face-to-face, no hash-tagging required.
The resulting media miscarriage has proved troubling for Morrison, who says he's been having trouble sleeping since his name became with front-page news.
"I've never really been in a situation where I could say that that's exactly not what happened," he says. "The only good thing about social networking is that people have so much ADHD that possibly by Saturday this whole thing will be gone and nobody will ever think about it again."
As for The Rhino, our attempts to contact their management were rebuffed several times, though we were referred to their sort-of apologetic blog post. They, too, are likely hoping that the whole thing will blow over.