The Women’s Studies Program hosted a discussion Tuesday titled “Identity Slurs,” where the topics of conversation included the ethics of jokes made at the expense of minorities, specifically the Kappa Sigma “Asia Prime Party” controversy.
Approximately 20 past and current students and faculty members gathered in the plush East Duke Parlors for an informal conversation about the issues. Women’s Studies professor Kathy Rudy and Anne Allison, interim director of Women’s Studies and professor of cultural anthropology, served as moderators for the event.
Although a recurring point of interest in the discussion was the fraternity’s Feb. 1 “International Relations” party that sparked national media attention and varied responses on campus, the Women’s Studies event was scheduled before the Kappa Sigma controversy unfolded. The students in attendance presented their own views on the subject and attempted to dissect why such cracks in the foundations of race and gender relations exist.
“What is going on is bigger than just, ‘I feel offended,’” said Rudy, regarding humor that makes light of potentially offensive representations. “If you don’t go along with it, you’re thought to be a b**ch.”
Students brought up the issue of where, and if, a line exists that makes certain forms of humor—including those pertaining to race, gender and ethnicity—qualify as offensive. Several students thought that the Kappa Sigma party and resulting campus dialogue was ambiguous because there were also Asian students in attendance at the party, who thus could be said to have been making fun of their own cultures.
“It became a debate over whether it was offensive, rather than just accepting that people were offended,” said Lisa Perry, a graduate student in East Asian studies.
The conversation also referenced Sunday night’s Academy Awards hosted by Seth MacFarlane, whose monologues included several jokes thought by some to be insensitive to women or misogynistic, such as a joke about women giving themselves the flu to look thinner for the Oscars.
Rudy called the awards show “horrifying” but also interesting in terms of the jokes being widely received as humorous entertainment, which could reflect how aspects of one’s identity—including race, gender and ethnicity—serve as a platform for humor.
Kimmy Farmer, a freshman in attendance at the discussion, brought up the negative, self-imposed social boundaries at Duke that often prevent an open social atmosphere. Greek life in particular, she noted, results in stereotypes about the people involved based on their association with an organization.
“The implied rank [of sororities] is based on the fraternities they associate themselves with,” Farmer said. “A lot of greek women do not like that.”
Rudy noted that similar discussions will hopefully take place through the Women’s Studies department in the future, in particular on the topic of sex. She said she hopes that the ideas produced in discussions such as this one will disperse into the rest of the community.
“The issues they were struggling with is what Women’s Studies is designed to think about,” Rudy said. “If you’re confused about it, you should consider taking one of our classes.”