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Duke aims to change pattern of controversial theme parties

Clockwise from top left, students pose at a “Creepy Guys and Cutie Pies” party; “Asia Prime” party attendees dress in stereotypical costumes; activists hold a sign protesting the “Asia Prime” party; the women’s lacrosse team wears a costume involving blackface.
Clockwise from top left, students pose at a “Creepy Guys and Cutie Pies” party; “Asia Prime” party attendees dress in stereotypical costumes; activists hold a sign protesting the “Asia Prime” party; the women’s lacrosse team wears a costume involving blackface.

Students and faculty alike say they are perplexed about how to address the recurrence of parties with inflammatory themes.

In recent years, Duke parties have grabbed national media attention with themes playing on racial and gender stereotypes. Parties have taken on themes of Asians, Pilgrims and Indians, Juveniles and Pedophiles and others. The frequency of parties with controversial themes raises questions about what attracts students to create such parties, and what people at Duke might do to respond to them and prevent future scandals.

“I’ve been at Duke for 20 years and I’ve seen this happen every few years,” said Orin Starn, chair of the cultural anthropology department. “I don’t know what it is about [Duke]. We seem to have a knack for throwing or doing inappropriate things, whether it’s Karen Owen or the lacrosse women in blackface.”

Since the beginning of Spring semester, parties hosted by Kappa Sigma and Sigma Nu fraternities have received national media attention for their controversial themes. Duke’s Eta Prime chapter of Kappa Sigma held a party Feb. 1 called “Asia Prime,” later relabeled “International Relations,” which generated outcry resulting in a demonstration and suspension by the national organization and Duke.

Senior Luke Keohane, president of Kappa Sigma, declined to comment.

On Feb. 12, Jezebel wrote an article about a January party hosted by Sigma Nu’s Gamma chapter, called “Creepy Guys and Cutie Pies.” The party later acquired the nickname “Juveniles and Pedophiles” in conversations around campus.

A post on the blog Policy Mic by senior Sunhay You referred to the event as a pregame mixer between Sigma Nu and Pi Beta Phi sorority.

Junior Jack Riker, president of Sigma Nu, declined to comment.

Jenny Schmidt, assistant director of marketing and communications for Pi Beta Phi’s national organization, said Duke’s chapter is under investigation in an ongoing internal process, but declined to say whether the investigation is related to the sorority’s involvement in the party.

Junior Jennifer Ross, president of the North Carolina Beta chapter, declined to comment on the party citing a national policy and deferred comment to Schmidt.

Transgressive pleasures

Starn said from an anthropological standpoint, he thinks the appeal of hosting parties with controversial themes could be the result of fraternities wanting to be edgy or wanting to appear as rebellious groups that defy conventions.

“There’s a perception today, in the U.S. and at Duke, that everything is politically correct, so that having a party that does something around an ethnic theme is transgressive,” he said. “I would call it the pleasure of the forbidden.”

But junior Tom Boyle, president of Pi Kappa Phi fraternity, said he thinks that party themes are often chosen without that degree of intentionality.

Around Thanksgiving 2011, Pi Kappa Phi hosted a “Pilgrims and Indians” party that invoked Native American stereotypes—an email invited attendees to tap into their “inner pocahotness,” for instance. After a guest column criticizing the party was published in The Chronicle and eventually gained attention from national media, the fraternity apologized for offending the Native American community in a letter to The Chronicle.

Before Pi Kappa Phi underwent scrutiny for the party, their process for choosing themes was largely unilateral, Boyle said. A single person in charge of the party would generally choose its theme, and would often send email invitations without discussing the theme with other members. The “Pilgrims and Indians” idea was generated because the girlfriend of one member charged with planning the party suggested it would be a good theme—she and several of her friends already had costumes that would fit the idea, he noted.

“People can get caught up in the competition of hosting a funnier thing without thinking about appropriateness, but I’ve never felt like anyone in our fraternity feels like they need to push the envelope,” Boyle said.

Sophomore Ray Liu, co-president of the Center for Race Relations, said he thought the recent party hosted by Kappa Sigma was offensive, but although he was involved with putting up fliers around campus to protest the party, he does not think there is anything “inherently wrong” with hosting a culturally themed party. Problems sometimes result, though, when such parties are hosted by groups that do not identify with the given culture.

“They’re not cognizant of the real pain that [a party] causes for those groups as individuals and how that relates to their life stories,” he said. “It’s like one racial group is trying to contort what [another] culture may look like into its own image. The stories of people who come from those backgrounds are so real and diverse and painful in a lot of ways.”

Ignorance and insensitivity about race and gender—whether intentional or not—could be a reason to explain the prevalence of these parties at Duke, Starn said.

“[It is] recycling the worst stereotypes about race and gender we’ve been trying to move beyond as a country for 30 or 40 years,” he said. “They’re taking us back to an older America when it was OK to make fun of people for their accents or because they don’t look like WASPs.”

Steven Foy, a doctoral student in the sociology department who researches the social psychology of status characteristics and race, said students often engage in unintentionally offensive behavior because they come to college without having been exposed to much cultural diversity. This phenomenon could be the result of growing up in a small, homogenous town or attending an all-girls or all-boys high school, among other reasons.

Another confounding factor is that the prevalence of stereotypes in communities like Duke can lead individuals to be desensitized to remarks or references that are offensive.

“It’s very troubling that despite the fact we’ve had situations on campus where we’ve had racially insensitive events and then a response to those events… we continue to see this perpetuating,” Foy said. “It makes me wonder if some sort of deeper structural intervention is necessary.”

Toward structural change

Boyle noted that for Pi Kappa Phi specifically, the backlash from the party made members more aware of how their actions could be perceived as insensitive.

Pi Kappa Phi now chooses party themes based on suggestions from members or from the sororities with whom they mix. Once themes are proposed, the executive board sits down to comb through them and look for inappropriateness, he said.

“There was a huge sense of embarrassment,” Boyle noted. “On the other hand, these cultural conversations aren’t always reaching students on a regular basis. These sorts of scandals have been the biggest sources of these dialogues on campus. In the future, you hope we can foster the conversation outside of incidents.”

But Liu does not think the conversations that have come out of the wake of the Kappa Sigma party have been fruitful.

“You can start a social justice project out of KSig, but it’s just a one-time thing,” he said. “It’s not just about cultural change. You need structural change, too.”

Part of that structural change should include creating a campus environment where individuals feel more comfortable expressing their unease with party themes, said Amy Cleckler, gender violence prevention program coordinator at the Women’s Center.

“[Women] tell me that they and others do feel uncomfortable about the themes but because of intense social pressure to conform and not speak up, they say nothing,” Cleckler wrote in an email Thursday. “This culture of silence around sexism and inappropriate sexual behavior is a major factor in the startlingly low rate at which people report sexual assault.”

It is also important to realize how these parties target and marginalize women, Cleckler added. The focus of controversy for the Kappa Sigma party centered on race, but the invitation to that and other parties are also implicitly sexist, requesting that women enter an objectifying environment. Because there are few repercussions on campus from other students or from University administrators, such instances of sexism become socially acceptable, she noted.

“That sends the message that it is acceptable and even funny for women to be seen as seen as sexual objects, that it is alright for men in our community to ask women to dress and behave in ways that overlook their complexity as fellow human beings, and focus solely on their bodies and their potential availability to men,” Cleckler said.

More than the party itself, Liu said he was disappointed by many peoples’ negative reactions toward the Asian American Alliance for distributing fliers about the party on campus. Some of the fliers featured compromising pictures of students, although their faces were obscured.

“I don’t necessarily agree with everything minority groups do, but I can sympathize with why they do the things they do,” he said. “We just react out of pure anger and that doesn’t help the issue. At the same time, to say ‘Shame on you’ for being angry invalidates the issue.”

Foy said addressing such complex and multifaceted issues of underlying racist and sexist behavior is immensely difficult, but opening conversational spaces on campus can be a good start.

When he was an undergraduate at Emory University, the university facilitated discussion groups between students from different backgrounds after a series of racially fueled controversies occurred. The groups were voluntary, but many students chose to participate, he said.

“It really humanizes the process,” Foy said. “If you sit down with people in a space that’s supposed to be safe, where it’s not going to impact the way people view you on campus… it can be really helpful in getting perspectives that allow you to see multiple sides of the issue.”

Liu also noted that for progress to happen, students have to look inside themselves and remove themselves from the frameworks in which they are comfortable.

“You can only do so much with mandatory social justice programs,” he said. “All of these programs we try to establish here at Duke are great for moving things along, but if you don’t have a bedrock of humanity and some semblance of character, I think it’s very difficult for this campus to move forward.”

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