When Will Racist-Themed Parties Go Away?

Last month, Duke University found itself in a media kerfuffle when its Kappa Sigma fraternity hosted a party, “Asia Prime,” where students wore stereotypical dress. While Duke’s student newspaper The Chronicle reports that the university has had a particularly troubling record of its student organizations holding racist-themed parties, it certainly isn’t the only offender. We’ve read recently about similar parties, which use racially-charged themes and stereotypical costumes, taking place on the campuses of the University of Southern California, Santa Clara University, Riverdale Christian Academy, and Oberlin College, just to name a  few.

It seems the same scenario continues to play out when it comes to these events. They are planned and promoted with little thought or awareness of the consequences they might have. Then, when news spreads, the student group apologizes, the school’s administration offers an obligatory apology, perhaps a panel discussion is conducted to discuss the issue, and everything goes back to the way things were…until it happens again. (And let’s not forget that we likely only hear about a fraction of such parties that actually takes place.)

Why do we continue to re-live this same cycle? Further, why hasn’t the message, “Don’t throw racially-themed parties-EVER,” gotten through?

Campus communities are only a reflection of the broader society, and just as colleges struggle to curtail racist-themed parties, society at-large struggles with how to effectively talk about and understand race. Some students may not understand the hurt that racial stereotyping causes, therefore may not consider the damage that a racially-charged theme party could cause before it’s too late. In reaction to Duke University’s Kappa Sigma party, Ray Liu, president of the university’s Center for Race Relations, told the student newspaper, “They’re not cognizant of the real pain that [a party] causes for those groups as individuals and how that relates to their life stories.” Creating that type of awareness means racial and cultural understanding must be at the center of how students are taught to interact with one another.

Even if students don’t always “get” that racially-themed parties are a bad idea, it’s difficult to imagine that they would not have learned from the examples of others. Unfortunately, students, and non-students alike, often suffer from short-term memories. With the transience inherent to campus communities, new cohorts of students may be unaware of the history of inappropriate parties, and therefore are unable to learn from past students’ mistakes. It is important that colleges and universities educate student organizations on such instances, embarrassing as they may be, in order to prevent them from happening again.

Such education must be sincere in its goal to promote tolerance, however. The Chronicle of Higher Education recently reported on party “handouts” used by Southern Methodist University to offer guidance on smart party planning. As shown, these guides are cartoonish and don’t treat the issue with the level of seriousness that it deserves. Rather than preparing students for the negative consequences of their ill-conceived social events, institutions should aim to teach students why such events are hurtful in the first place.

Do you think substantive conversations on race can happen? Give us your thoughts below in the comments section or Twitter. 

03.28.2013   |   ,

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