This Wednesday I passed by a rally organized by students, including senior Ting-Ting Zhou, president of the Asian Students Association at Duke, in protest of a recent fraternity themed party whose references to cultural identity were found “offensive” and “racist.” This is obviously a matter of perception: I don’t suppose a French person would be offended if I dressed up as a musketeer, and I know of no Swedes who would find a Viking costume insulting or racist. When pop culture incorporates a national ware and other parts of cultural identity, it inevitably trivializes it, extracting the most jovial, funny, appealing (and most easily commercialized) aspects—and there’s nothing wrong with that. We all realize that Spartan soldiers didn’t exactly look like tanned supermodels in speedos, as shown in “300,” and that there’s more to the Sicilian culture than Vito Corleone. But these are all popular, 21st century interpretations of culture aimed to entertain, not diminish or discriminate one’s culture, race or nationality.
Why, then, is last week’s dress-up party any different? And why are people assuming that emulating one’s culture in a joking way is a sign of disrespect, discrimination and racism? Shouldn’t the ability to take lightly one’s own culture and, yes, sometimes joke about it, be taken as a sign of cultural maturity? Apparently, not. The behavior of Zhou in this situation is deeply disappointing on two grounds.
First, the underlying premise of this protest is a demand for greater tolerance by the perceived “white majority” (which in turn dismisses all identities as secondary in importance to race). However, this demand is not matched with any hint of tolerance on the part of those who ask for it. Tolerance includes reciprocity—you can’t just accuse XYZ of being intolerant while yourself exemplifying such profound intolerance that a simple dress-up party gets you enraged. Besides being essentially unfair, this approach can be very destructive.
Second, as I talked with the attendees of the protest, I understood that a significant majority of them don’t take much offense with the specific party, but rather with the general discriminatory atmosphere in society. In this sense, the party itself was a trigger, really an excuse to protest a broader issue. The ASA clearly was aware of this fact—this organization knew that if it screamed “racism” and directed this “deadly word” at a Duke fraternity, it would easily gain public spotlight. They were, as everyone is, perfectly aware that a conveniently unpopular “villain” provides a perfect catalysis of accumulated anger and frustration. And then just pin it all to the “d-bag frat dudes” everyone loves to hate. The ASA took advantage of the situation and did not restrain itself from manipulating the mob mentality and media greed—so vividly seen in Wednesday’s protest—not to foster dialogue, but to get its vocal points across. And for this kind of behavior: Shame on you, ASA.
Fedja Pavlovic, Trinity ’15
Note 2/8/2013: The following column was predicated on Pavlovic's erroneous assumption that ASA organized the flier campaign and protest. Changes have been made accordingly.