Between 2017 and 2019, the Jabberwocks a cappella group wrote comments on the back of audition cards that mocked auditionee’s accents and races, sexualized appearances and made fun of singing abilities. These cards were revealed alongside a 2006 quote book and a personal notebook belonging to one member of the group in a post on Dear Blueno, a student-run Facebook page that solicits and posts anonymous submissions. All of the claims in the post were later verified by the group.
The cards, notebook and quote book, which were reviewed by The Herald, were found in the group’s practice room before being turned into the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards for investigation.
The post included links to images of some audition cards, which include comments such as “spanish & arabic ← downvote” and “giggles ‘terrorism.’”
OSCCS cannot “disclose information on specific allegations,” Kirsten Wolfe, associate dean and assistant director of student conduct and community standards, wrote in a email to The Herald. But she shared that the office will begin a preliminary review “reaching out to relevant parties and gathering the information required to consider whether or not moving to next steps is warranted.”
This preliminary review will lead to either a “more comprehensive investigative review process” or notification to parties that “no additional action will be taken,” Wolfe wrote.
Current members of the Jabberwocks have since acknowledged the potential harm inflicted on auditionees and have apologized, pledging to change a culture that many have said still benefits from white male privilege and a 70-year legacy of alumni connections.
“We want to demonstrate our commitment to making sure that this kind of harm wouldn’t happen again,” said Sally Zhang ’23, a current member of the Jabberwocks and its business manager.
In response to the allegations, the Jabberwocks have postponed their fall auditions indefinitely.
Revelations spark discussion among groups
After the contents of the notecards were released to the public, the a capella community felt “an overall overwhelming sentiment of hurt and anger,” said Olivia Williams ’22, czar of the Intergalactic Community of A Cappella, which oversees 10 on-campus a capella groups.
Students “from many different identities expressed feeling unsafe knowing that they had auditioned during this time period,” she said, and others expressed discomfort with the prospect of hosting auditions alongside the Jabberwocks only a few days after this information came out.
“The overwhelming emotional sentiment was … sad that it had to come out in this way, that it didn’t come from the group itself,” Williams added.
With input from other a cappella members, Williams put together a town hall meeting for Sept. 11, the Saturday following the release, to “create space for people to open up about their feelings and thoughts and reflections.”
The town hall lasted three and a half hours and hosted roughly 50 attendees on Zoom. The first portion was dedicated to discussion without the Jabberwocks present, before the Jabberwocks were invited to join the Zoom for the second half. The Jabberwocks read a group statement and discussed their own feelings about the situation.
“People started mostly with emotion,” Williams said. “Once those were aired out, then the conversation actually shifted toward, ‘Okay, what are we doing about this?’”
The a cappella community ultimately concluded that the Jabberwocks had a lot of work to do before moving forward, and should “take time to really interrogate their history and their group culture,” Williams said. The community agreed that they should not host auditions during the fall semester to instead focus on “seeking ways to do justice to the folks that were harmed in this” and “reframe their history.” The Jabberwocks complied, agreeing to take the time to reflect and hold off on auditions until futher notice.
Williams asked the Jabberwocks to release an internal statement addressed to the a capella community outlining their next steps by midnight Sept. 12.
“The community was satisfied with that immediate short-term answer,” Williams added, with the Jabberwocks postponing auditions and releasing what was deemed a sufficiently comprehensive statement. Williams plans to hold future meetings with the Jabberwocks and other a capella members to check in on the group’s progress.
“It’s important to recognize that the entire a capella community is hurting,” Williams said. “This also reflects on our community within the context of Brown and the types of cultures that we promote.”
A capella community reacts, responds
Fate Bussey ’23.5, a member of the Bear Necessities, learned about the Jabberwock’s notecards during rehearsal. His initial reaction was that whoever submitted the Dear Blueno post “had gotten something right” based on what he had observed of the Jabberwock’s culture.
Bussey said he thinks it would be “reasonable” to remove the one remaining member who had been a part of the Jabberwocks in 2019 from the group. “They carry this culture with them,” he said. “I don’t see any need for them to continue influencing the new members.”
He also agreed with the Jabberwocks’ decision not to hold auditions for the time being. “I truly do think that they need some time to reexamine themselves and what that group stands for,” Bussey said.
Bussey has already noticed some positive change since the Jabberwocks became co-ed in 2019. “The current female members of that group are victims of this process, not perpetrators of it,” he said.
John Coady ’23, a member of the Higher Keys, believes that this is “a complicated situation because it’s absolutely something that needs to be addressed.” The actions of the Jabberwocks were “completely unacceptable.”
But Coady also acknowledged that very few of the current Jabberwocks were a part of the group that wrote these cards between 2017 and 2019. “It’s really difficult to balance making sure that this issue is being addressed while also understanding that the (current) Jabberwocks are victims of this as well,” he said.
Coady believes a cappella groups, including the Jabberwocks, have been working toward wider changes to culture and inclusivity during the year and a half of virtual operations during the COVID-19 pandemic. He would like to see concrete changes in the future such as cutting ties with the Jabberwock’s alumni network — which has historically provided significant funding to the group.
“The whole root of this problem is not the current Jabberwocks, it’s all of the old ones who saw through this culture the entire time,” Coady said. “I don’t know why (the current Jabberwocks) would want to take their money or want to have their support at this point.”
Based on conversations he has had with the Jabberwocks, he believes that there are “positive” changes being made. “It’s the culture that is the problem, not the people,” he said. “I have absolute faith that … they will do what needs to be done to correct the course of their group.”
Maxime Hendrikse Liu ’23 was “initially horrified” by the news of the notecards. Liu had not auditioned for the Jabberwocks but felt “sick” thinking about what they could have written about her if she had. “It’s an awful sense of relief: realizing that you dodged a bullet, then turning around and seeing your friends who didn’t,” she wrote in an email to The Herald.
Hendrikse Liu immediately reached out to her friends in the a cappella community to check in and learned that some of them thought they recognized cards written about them.
But she was not surprised upon hearing about the notecards. “Any space that is dominated by extremely privileged identities has a high risk of becoming a breeding ground for this sort of behavior,” she wrote. “The Jabberwocks have a history of being an all-cis-male, predominantly-white group, who also had access to a significant amount of wealth from alumni donations (which) accrued over time.”
Liu hopes that future backlash is directed toward the Jabberwocks as a historical institution and not as a group of individuals. Many current Jabberwocks “are as distressed as anyone else by the statements revealed in the Dear Blueno post … some of whom were in fact victims of the audition cards,” she wrote. “The vast majority of current members of the group were victims of (and/or are already actively working to transform) the toxic culture within the Wocks that allowed racism, misogyny and sexualization of auditionees to thrive.”
Jabberwocks consider internal reform
When the Jabberwocks first learned about the Dear Blueno post about their audition cards, many of their members were in “disbelief,” Zhang said.
Zhang, who joined during the 2019 audition cycle and had an audition card comment written about her, was conflicted because she had found the group to be “nothing but warm and welcoming” when she joined as a first-year. Only two senior members, one of whom has since left the group, were present when the cards were written in 2019.
The Jabberwocks first took some time to come to terms with this new information. Zhang, for instance, texted former Jabberwocks members to verify the information. Former members confirmed that the audition cards were real.
“Thinking that the group before we entered it represented itself in this way and acted this way was really, really disappointing and sad for a lot of us, particularly because some of the notecards were written about us as auditionees,” said Jabberwocks member Gus Benson ’24, who auditioned in 2019 before taking a gap year for the 2020-21 school year.
Though the group is used to students speaking out against them, they quickly realized this situation was one that would elicit a stronger reaction than most.
“We have had people speak out against us for various things,” said Jabberwocks member Ethan Asis ’24, who also took a gap year and auditioned in 2019. “Some of those things have been accurate, others have not been.”
Many of the Jabberwocks learned about the post while at rehearsal the night of Sept. 9. Instead of singing, they spent the next several hours discussing what their next steps should be.
“That first rehearsal in particular was very, very heavy,” Asis said. Some members stayed until 2 a.m. to discuss plans and begin drafting a statement.
Many of the Jabberwocks do not yet know for sure if they have cards written about them. They have decided to focus on their next steps for the time being, but are in the process of getting the cards returned to them, Zhang said.
“We’re being held accountable, so regardless of whether or not we are also caught in the crossfire, I think it’s more important that” the group focus on responding, Asis said.
The next day, the Jabberwocks spent many hours in discussion, with members going in and out to shop classes. They posted an initial Facebook statement in the comments of the Dear Blueno post and began researching their own history in depth.
Some of the Jabberwocks’ initial plans include revising the callback pamphlet to make the history section more candid. Instead of just a brief overview, it will now emphasize that new members understand the implications of joining a group with 70 years of history, Asis said.
The Jabberwocks have also begun discussing how to restructure recruitment and are considering the practice of handing back audition cards and feedback to the auditionees. “We want to demonstrate our commitment to making sure that this kind of harm wouldn’t happen again,” Zhang said.
On Sept. 11, the Jabberwocks attended the community town hall. They felt “committed to making sure to listen to exactly how they’ll be affected and how we can help them,” Zhang added.
The Jabberwocks found it difficult to read the room during the meeting because many attendees had their cameras turned off, Benson said. After the meeting ended, the group was given 14 suggestions for internal changes they could make, crafted by their a capella peers from other groups.
“A lot of things that they were asking were huge internal things that would change us fundamentally,” Zhang said. The Jabberwocks decided they needed time to consider the options but could postpone auditions immediately.
The Jabberwocks have spent the past week and a half discussing long-term changes they hope to make as a group. Though these conversations are not yet finished, they have a better idea of their future plans.
“A lot of these bigger discussions we have been having as a group for a while,” said Dorrit Corwin ’24, a member of the Jabberwocks who also auditioned in 2019 but took a gap year. “They’re really big decisions to make (as) the current iteration of a group that’s existed for so long.”
Current Jabberwocks members estimate that the group has not received funding from the alumni association since roughly 2017 or 2018. When they do ask for funding, it is generally to help pay for travel or album production. They often earn that money to pay the alumni association back from performances.
The Jabberwocks are also working to produce a transparency document spanning their 70 years of history, and have had preliminary discussions about potentially rebranding by changing their name.
Despite their plans to make changes, the Jabberwocks feel that both they and the larger a cappella community are missing integral historical context about the group’s legacy at Brown.
“It feels like the nature of this entire discourse in these discussions, and the format in particular, have not really at all been conducive to progress and transparency,” Benson said. “We would really love to have an open conversation.”
The Jabberwocks transitioned from a men-only to an all-voices a capella group in 2019. Current juniors are the first class of auditionees after the transition.
“As a woman in this group, it’s been a really interesting experience,” Corwin said. “For the majority of it, it’s been very empowering.”
As their conversations continue, the Jabberwocks plan to make more concrete plans to address the concerns. These include whether they should keep their practice room — they are the only a capella group on campus to have a dedicated room — and when and how they will next host auditions.
“We really do want accountability for that privilege and we are in the midst of conversations about whether that means relinquishing the room, sharing with other a cappella groups or figuring out (another) way to make that more equitable,” Corwin said.