Two days ago, Duke University made national news. We made national news because it seems that here at Duke, we are a bunch of rich, white, snobby d-bags. But really, all we want to do is let those damned minorities know that they’re worse than us. I personally have had the worst time with my perfectly bronzed skin.
There are those around campus who are questioning the right of so-called “privileged non-minorities” to speak about the perceived hurt felt by Asians because of a frat party held last Friday. As a woman of South-Asian heritage, I would like to take the opportunity to speak for those silenced by the righteous.
Last year, a campaign ad for the president and vice president of Duke’s Class of 2015 contained pictures and a motto about “Latkes and Lo Mein.” The Asian Students Association took offense, with one officer describing the ads as “racially offensive.” Last time I checked, the wheat noodle, meat and vegetable dish was a part of Chinese cuisine. Last time I checked, Mexican men wore sombreros and the Native American people wore war bonnets. Often, one or more symbols are used to represent a whole—like the Cameron Crazies for the Duke student body. It’s not something bad, it just is.
The reactionary response of some members of these communities at the usage of these cultural objects is absurd. “HOW DARE YOU KSIG.” How dare Kappa Sigma do what? Let their guests wear conical paddy hats? The uproar suggests that there should be an exclusivity of culture. However, one is not the guardian of one’s culture, preventing its use and interpretation by those outside the community. No one has taken out a patent on the trademarks of one’s culture. KSig and its guests were within their rights to wear as many conical paddy hats as they liked.
“If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” This statement problematically divides the community. Not all Asians on campus are members of the Asian Students Association, and so the ASA cannot deign to speak for the Asian community at-large. Being Asian by birth does not give the community the claim to requisition the thoughts, feelings and actions of every other Asian, as though birth is equivalent to a definitive identity. The sentence found on the flyers plastered around West Campus was little more than presumptuous cultural blackmail.
Sensitivity to cultural symbols suggests that these elements of the culture are an embarrassment to the greater culture. If the ASA is embarrassed by the fact that some Asian people eat lo mein, name themselves Yu and You, make the peace sign at the camera and sumo wrestle, then it should not associate with those elements. The elements of culture that are most appreciated must be associated with and perpetuated. We, the non-members, will then better understand the right image of the culture that should be perpetuated.
Why are comedians like Dave Chappelle, George Carlin and Russell Peters renowned? Not only because they lampoon the characteristics of other races for contemporary audiences, but because they can lampoon the characteristics of their own races. It is shameful that this is the case. As grown-ups, we cannot always be somber and disciplined—we need time to let go, time to reflect upon ourselves and laugh and time to reflect on others and laugh. It seems that Duke students, for all their enlightenment, have lost their ability to laugh and have gained the ability to moralize and censure in their quest for correctness.
Fraternity party themes and stand-up comedians’ jokes are funny because they ridicule something through an exaggeration of its truth. And the truth is not something bad; the truth is not racist. Racism is the supposition of inferiority; the truth of something has no nature of its own. It simply is. Did the pictures on the flyers show any evidence that Asians were portrayed as inferior? The pictures showed elements of Asian culture, and it goes without saying that there are many more elements to Asian culture and history that were not represented at all at the party. The Duke community needs to continue to learn about its members, but it is not racist for not having learned everything yet.
Is it time we homogenize ourselves to eradicate the divides of race and class? Is it time we stop having themed parties, living groups, awareness events, museum exhibits and restaurants based on race or class? Today, we live with different characteristics and different accents from all over the world, including from the USA and Europe. We don’t all have the same mannerisms; we don’t all speak the same English. Can we just accept that, have a good laugh and move on?
Pi Praveen is a Trinity freshman. Her column runs every other Friday.