Drawing students bearing kimonos and calculators, Kappa Sigma fraternity’s Asia Prime party is the most recent in a long line of insensitive party themes conjured up by groups at Duke. Although very few, if any, Duke students harbor explicitly racist views, pervasive sexist, racist and otherwise disrespectful party themes remind us that insidious forms of prejudice operate in the absence of overt racism and that our community continues to suffer from norms that allow this unseen prejudice to persist.
The party was racist for several reasons. Firstly, the invitation employed caricatures of Asian culture and speech. But more importantly—the theme, the invitation and the attire worn by those at the party all drew on stereotypes and myths about Asian culture and people that reduced a diverse group of human beings with varied customs and traditions to a set of symbols and garments stripped from a smattering of Asian traditions. Throwing a party in which traditional attire from China, Japan and Thailand all get tossed into the totalizing Asian category misrepresents, trivializes and devalues the range of cultural practices found in Asia and Asian American communities.
Conceiving of Asian culture in this way treats it as fundamentally different from and inferior to the cultural practices found in the United States and Europe. Moreover, culturally insensitive party themes allow the norms that underlie prejudice to go unexamined. The themes reproduce an understanding of culture and society that alienates Asians and Asian Americans from the broader community, robs these groups of cultural self-determination, legitimizes their oppression and social exclusion and denies them the ability to shape their own cultural identities. Because, in the United States, Asians and Asian Americans constitute a historically marginalized group that continues to lack significant institutional power, the persistence of racist myth and stereotypes is particularly damaging.
From Asia Prime to Pi Kappa Phi fraternity’s Pilgrims and Indians party last year to a perennial slew of sexist party invitations, racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination continue to assert themselves as permanent fixtures of Duke’s social fabric. Although scandals often spur dialogue, the fact that they continue to pervade campus life suggests that both the University and social groups should take stronger steps to root out discrimination. Perhaps fraternity party themes and invitations should undergo a more thorough screening process, or maybe the University should require new selective living group members to receive training on how to develop party themes and invitations that do not disrespect their peers.
Eradicating prejudice is incredibly difficult. And if, for whatever reason, individuals and groups continue to perpetuate harmful stereotypes and norms, we hope that the rest of the Duke community can respond by developing and asserting new norms that emphasize respect and inclusiveness. The Facebook and flyer campaign launched by a group of students in response to Kappa Sigma’s party reflects the attitude that Duke students should take in response to these kinds of parties. Even if they cannot root out prejudice, the students, by expressing their frustration with racism and demanding that we adopt new norms, have begun to create a community in which racism, sexism and cultural insensitivity are no longer tolerated.
Board Chair Katherine Zhang, co-president of the Asian American Alliance, recused herself.