Students gather to discuss ‘culture clash’
A Pi Kappa Phi party has sparked controversy after a contentious theme and language in an email invitation raised questions about the culture climate at Duke.
Pi Kappa Phi fraternity hosted a “Pilgrims and Indians” themed party Nov. 19, that played off stereotypes of Native Americans. In the email, partygoers were encouraged to “wear a few feathers” and “tap into your inner pocahotness” in the name of Thanksgiving. Sophomore Nicole Daniels wrote a guest column in The Chronicle Dec. 5 expressing her distaste with the party, calling it bigoted and disrespectful. Reaction to the party and the column has caused student and other campus leaders to discuss how to curb cultural ignorance in all settings.
This portrayal of Natives is likely due to the misrepresentation of Native Americans in popular culture, noted senior Amber Richardson, president of the Native American Student Alliance and lifelong member of the Haliwa-Saponi tribe. Because of the small number of Native Americans at Duke and in America, she added that it is difficult to raise a united response to racist media portrayals.
“Misrepresentations in pop culture make it seem like this is okay—like you can take our culture and make it into a party theme,” Richardson said. “All of this attention that we’re getting is giving us the opportunity to say that this is really offensive, and you’re taking a central part of our identity and making into a joke without knowing the cultural significance behind it.”
Daniels’ column raised a strong response from the Duke community: 398 comments were posted on her column online at The Chronicle’s website as of Wednesday.
Many responses to Daniels’ column opposed her views, claiming that no offense should be taken due to the party, noting that the brothers of Pi Kappa Phi had no malicious intent in throwing the party. The fraternity submitted a letter to The Chronicle Dec. 6 that apologized for offending the Native American community.
Pi Kappa Phi President Tyler Donahue, a senior, said this incident reflects a larger issue facing the University in terms of social ignorance. He added that it would be irresponsible to restrict dialogue to the Pi Kappa Phi party and ignore the greater issue of insensitivity.
“Yes, this was offensive—we screwed up here” Pi Kappa Phi President Tyler Donahue, a senior, said in an interview Wednesday. “However, currently, I think that focusing on this one party really does an injustice to this issue. The issue that we are talking about now is not what we told our guests in an email or what our guests dressed as. It’s why what we did in this email and why what we did at this part was considered ‘OK’ before this. ”
Richardson agreed, adding that other minorities have been subject to becoming party themes.
“When I started doing research, and I found that other cultures have been commercialized and trivialized, I realized it’s not just about [this party],” Richardson said. “I am very disappointed that Pi Kapp is being demonized.”
Donahue noted that he sat down with a Housing, Dining and Residence Life representative to discuss the party beforehand, including the theme.
“[HDRL] didn’t pick up on this, and [the party] got approved,” he said. “There is a general disconnect here.”
Joe Gonzalez, associate dean of residence life, said he did not take part in the decision to approve the party. Vice President of Student Affairs Larry Moneta said he did not know anything about the approval process.
“I can sympathize with the idea that this was not created with ill intent,” Richardson noted. “I have had to acknowledge my own bias and admit that Pi Kapp was not being ignorant in doing this but were being naive. I’m sure it wasn’t meant to cause harm, but it did. And now that Pi Kapp acknowledges that it did, we can move forward together to educate people on why actions like this are not okay.”
In response to the controversy, the Center for Multicultural Affairs, Pi Kappa Phi and NASA hosted an event Wednesday titled, “Culture Clash: Marginalization of Native America.” The panel featured three Pi Kappa Phi brothers and three members of NASA. The forum fostered a dialogue between the two parties but was also open to community discussion.
Donahue opened the forum with an apology to NASA and all members of the Native American community that the fraternity offended with their party.
“We are sorry for the offense we caused to Amber and her group,” Donahue said. “We really hope to help make this situation right by opening up an honest dialogue today to discuss why we did what we did and, hopefully, shed light on the larger issue of why these types of events continue to happen.”
Donahue added that more care will be taken in the planning of future parties to ensure that such offenses are not repeated.
“We’ve learned that everyone has ignorance to some group in one way or another,” he noted. “We’re really going to take it upon ourselves, when we write these emails, to critically analyze them and take ourselves out of our personal situation.”
The sophomore also faced online attacks as a result. An imposter Facebook profile called “Pocahotness,” referencing the Pi Kappa Phi email, featured a Native caricature FaceinHole.com creation with Daniels’ face. Daniels has also received personal backlash through websites such as Barstool Sports, which called Daniels a slew of derogatory terms.
“People have had a lot of negative things to say about me—it’s really disheartening to see that people are so outraged and misinformed,” Daniels said. “But I’ve also gotten really positive feedback from a lot of strangers, professors and administrators.... I was definitely excited to see attention from [Jezebel and The Huffington Post].”
The issue has also, however, motivated campus discussion about race and cultural relations.
Moneta said Student Affairs has reached out to Native American student leaders and will continue in every way to encourage appreciation of difference in identities. He added that this incident is not collectively representative of Duke social discourse but of human fallibility, noting that not all students come to Duke with the same understanding of diversity issues.
Moving forward, the University will need to improve the way it educates its students on diversity, said Zoila Airall, assistant vice president of student affairs for campus life. She noted that, although the brothers of Pi Kappa Phi were sincerely apologetic, they may not all fully understand the root of their wrongdoing.
“We need to be more intentional about the diversity education that we’re giving,” Airall said. “This is going to require students of all backgrounds coming together and talking together. We need cultural humility.”