Duke Kappa Sigma party ignites firestorm of criticism

Flyers protesting an Asian-themed party hosted by Kappa Sigma fraternity appeared around campus today. Since this morning, many of the posters have been torn down.
Flyers protesting an Asian-themed party hosted by Kappa Sigma fraternity appeared around campus today. Since this morning, many of the posters have been torn down.

updated 1:30 a.m. Thursday

A theme party held Friday by Kappa Sigma fraternity has drawn major backlash from the Asian community and others at the University and online.

At 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, several students, including seniors Ashley Tsai, Tong Xiang and Ting-Ting Zhou posted fliers across campus protesting a Kappa Sigma party that took place Feb. 1. The fliers included emails containing racially insensitive language sent out to party invitees and photographs from Facebook of costumed students at the party with their faces obscured. The actions precipitated criticism both of the party and of the fliering, and resulted in an official apology from Kappa Sigma.

“This is not just about Asians, one party or one frat,” Tsai said. “This is a consistent thing happening. We want serious things to be done by the student body and the University so that this never happens again.”

The party was originally called “Kappa Sigma Asia Prime” in a Jan. 29 email sent out by the fraternity. Zhou said it was brought to her attention and the Center for Multicultural Affairs filed a bias incident report to the Office for Fraternity and Sorority Life, which prompted the second email with a modified invitation. The message said Asia Prime was canceled and a new party, “International Relations,” would instead take place. Kappa Sigma hosted “Asia Prime” parties in previous years, when the fraternity operated off campus.

In an email from Kappa Sigma President Luke Keohane, a senior, the fraternity apologized for their actions and for the party.

“Upon learning of the deeply damaging effects of our email to our fellow students, we should have completely canceled the aforementioned party,” the email read. “The Duke Community in which we exist is one that we see too often as divided, and while our actions have brought attention to and widened that divide, it is our sincere intention to work to contribute to a United Duke.”

The operations of Kappa Sigma fraternity were suspended Wednesday, Mitch Wilson, executive director of the Kappa Sigma national organization, said. The fraternity will undergo an investigation to determine the status of its charter, but all activities and events are now prohibited.

The original emailed invitation included misspellings to convey accented English—“Herro Nice Duke Peopre”—and contained a meme based on Kim Jong Il character in the film “Team America: World Police.”

The fliers imposed text over the message labeling the party “#RacistRager” and speculating that Kappa Sigma may lose its charter, which it regained last May, nearly 10 years after it dissolved and moved off campus in 2002. The fraternity operated under its chapter name, Eta Prime, until it was invited back on campus last summer.

“Nice one, Broseph Stalin!!!!! You won’t get unchartered for this!!! ;)” one flier design read.

Shortly after the fliers were posted, some covering entire bulletin boards, members of Kappa Sigma were seen removing them as part of an organized initiative by the fraternity. A bulletin board in the West Union Building, which had been covered and then cleared of fliers, was later filled by the words “HOW DARE YOU KSIG” cut from newsprint.

Zhou is the sitting president of the Asian Students Association, but she noted that the distribution of fliers was not affiliated with any particular organization. Undergraduate students of all races participated in the flyering, she said.

“We are protesting the culture of acceptance at these kinds of things,” Zhou said. “The administration does nothing.”

Vice President for Student Affairs Larry Moneta said he met with Kappa Sigma leadership on Tuesday morning, expressing his disappointment that the party occurred despite encouragement from the University administration to cancel it.

A protest against the party is scheduled for 1 p.m. Wednesday at the West Campus bus stop, and more than 560 people had responded on Facebook as “Going” by the time of publication.

Several students disagreed with the flier campaign and the condemnation of the party.

Freshman Raffi Garnighian posted on Facebook Tuesday, “People with the fliers: you do realize most of the people in those pictures were NOT responsible for the party but just showed up. Nice job damaging reputations of random people, you’re [sic] group is a joke and should be dissolved at this point.”

Xiang, who formerly served as The Chronicle’s online managing editor, explained that the decision to include photographs of the party was a conflicted one but ultimately rested on the fact that the photos were already available on Facebook. He also noted that the text of the email did not seem enough to convey that the party theme went as originally planned.

“We won’t apologize. The people in the photos not only participated in the racist imagery of the party but they also decided to publish those images themselves,” Xiang said. “They decided that they would post these photos on Facebook for thousands of people to see. We are not the publishers.”

Others, like sophomore Emily Steemers, found the reaction to the party to be justified but badly handled.

“I understand where [the students posting the fliers] are coming from, but I think their response was very emotional,” Steemers said. “Putting photos of these girls in public is unprofessional and condescending. I think they came across as very immature.”

Moneta noted that no course of discipline is planned for members of the fraternity, because he does not believe a single punishment or memo will resolve the persistent racial stereotyping that has occurred at Duke social gatherings. He said he will continue to work with student leaders to help them understand that.

In addition to the planned Wednesday afternoon protest—which is organized by the Asian American Alliance—an open discussion hosted by the Asian Students Association and Duke Student Government will be held at 7:30 p.m. in McClendon 5.

Katherine Zhang, co-president for the AAA with Xiang, said the goal of the protest stretches beyond the Kappa Sigma party and racism against Asian students.

“Every year something like this happens. The frats apologize and then the next weekend it happens again,” Zhang said. “I hope that this time people can really be thoughtful and honest and try to come up with a lasting solution to racism and sexism here.”

Zhang serves as the chair of the independent Editorial Board of The Chronicle.

Many students like Garnighian and Steemers have taken to various social media to reflect their opinions on the issue, including questions as to whether the party is a manifestation of racism at all. Zhang noted that impersonating the skin color of another person denies the reality of the racial stereotypes students must live with 24/7, beyond the parameters of a Friday night party.

“The problem is to assume that the skin in which America has determined that I am makes me not fully human,” Xiang said. “It is a skin that I cannot take off, a skin that they can put on as a costume and make it a fun night. It is completely trival to [them] but [they] don’t have to live in our world.”


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