It's common knowledge that at fraternity and sorority parties much more is slurred than just words. Racial and sexual epithets abound, not only spoken, but also displayed through dress, signs, gestures, email and social media posts. Yet year after year this practice continues, unabated, reported on for salacious details and then left to die in the news caverns of the Huffington Post archives.
Caitlin Flanagan’s cover story for the Atlantic on the history of frat house fatalities, fraternity, and to a much lesser extent sorority culture, has rekindled public outrage. The hulking, year-long investigation covers nearly two centuries of brotherly exclusivity along with more recent scourges of sexual assault, students falling from great heights at parties, and painful hazing rituals.
Let the media mudslinging (or, rather, the Animal House-style food fights) begin! Maria Konnikova also wrote for the Atlantic this week about the cult of white male privilege that characterizes so many fraternities. “One of the fundamental principles of group psychology,” Konnikova writes, “is that, in order to define a group, you must define not only what it’s for, but what — or whom — it’s against.”
Konnikova began to get at the psychological underpinnings of frat life, but it was Katie J.M. Baker at Al Jazeera who administered the smackdown. Baker writes that Flanagan’s article doesn’t “look at the real ‘dark’ side of Greek life: institutional class privilege, racism and sexism.” That's true. When Greek life makes it into the media spotlight it’s almost always to do with some outrageously insensitive party that targets women and minorities for the pleasure of their mostly white, mostly male peers (okay, and rapebaiting emails and the occasional butt-chug).
Don’t know much about history? Consider this your primer on another year of racist, sexist ragers that no amount of dubious punch can black out.
1. “Thug Party” at Arizona State University
What’s the sexiest time for a bunch of privileged white kids to wear basketball jerseys, drink frat juice from hollowed-out watermelons, and flash gang signs? According to members of the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity at Arizona State University that would be MLK day (correct answer: never). This past January, students congregated in what they interpreted as thug attire, posted copious pictures of the charade on social media, and even got creative with tags like #MLKblackout and #hood and studded their Instagram posts with watermelon emoticons.
The New York Times reported that the fraternity was suspended after outraged students allied with civil rights leaders. The fraternity had already been on probation after one of its members was suspected of beating up a black classmate on campus. The ASU undergraduate student population is 5 percent black.
2. “USA vs. Mexico” party at Randolph-Macon University
In November, members of Kappa Alpha fraternity threw a party where guests were encouraged to dress like “illegal Mexicans” and border patrol agents at Randolph-Macon University in Ashland Virginia. Participants, who sported sombreros, large fake mustaches, and border patrol disguises, were encouraged to play a drinking game in which the students dressed as agents tried to “catch” students portraying immigrants. According to NBC Latino, the fraternity’s guiding slogan is “The moral compass for the modern gentleman.”
Randolph-Macon University is only the most recent example of this insolent strain of frat party. The University of Texas at Austin had promoted such an event in September 2012. “Alpha Tau Omega Presents Fiestau” advertised a veritable obstacle course of institutional racism with guests told there would be some sort of faux-wall in the middle of the party with Mexican-themed drinks on one side and Texan-themed drinks on the other. There’s nothing borderline about the biases of those who planned the event without raising objections. In response to pressure from a slew of UT students, the party name was unhelpfully changed to “Alpha Tau Omega Presents the Alamo” and then canceled altogether.
3. “Asia Prime" Party at Duke University
“We look forward to having Mi, Yu, You and Yo friends over for some Sake. Chank you.” So read Kappa Sigma’s invitation to its “Asia Prime” party, which took place at Duke University on Feb. 1, 2013. According to rumors of that “epic night” and photographic evidence posted to students’ social media accounts, guests dressed up in silk robes, fake sumo wrestler paunch, chopstick hair accessories, and parroted stereotypical Asian accents. The New York Daily News reported that by the time the party actually took place it had been renamed “International Relations.” Students immediately began referring to it as the “racist rager.”
Ashley Tsai, a Duke senior at the time, explained to the Duke Chronicle a few days after the incident, "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." As part of the organized protest against the party, some students posted pictures from the party of their drunken cohorts in costume. The fliers read, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention” and were removed in a brotherly blitz of image control the same day.
The frat was temporarily suspended a week after the party due to these and many other protests. The day before the suspension took place, Larry Moneta, the vice president of student affairs at Duke, told the Herald Sun, “The event was thoughtless and offensive, but we’re not sure it actually broke any rules.”
Other recent racist antics in the Duke University frat-o-sphere include a “Pilgrims and Indians” party in December 2011 and an invitation in October 2010 summoning “all potential slam pieces” to a “Plan-B Pregame.” What lucky lady could resist?
4. “Colonial Bros and Nava-Hos” at California Polytechnic State University
How can you be anti-woman, insult Native Americans, and signal your approval of genocide all in the same rager? Just do what Cal Poly did and throw a Colonial Bros and Nava-Hos party. Better yet, throw it on Thanksgiving. The party, which was thrown by three fraternities, was later denounced by the university president and a forum was conducted where students could air their grievances.
Cal Poly is by no means the first to inflict this lame idea on the rest of the student body. Many other fraternities have tried to ride the same gravy train to party town only to be brutally rebuffed by their unchill peers. Harvard bros also threw a “Conquista-bros and Nava-hos” party back in 2010 in honor of Columbus Day (when brother Chris found America and cracked open a 40). Backlash eventually forced an apology from Sigma Chi, the fraternity that threw the bash.
The University of Chicago’s Alpha Delta Phi chapter also tried to throw such a party in May 2012, wooing guests via Facebook invite with a call to “conquer, spread disease, and enslave natives.” The name of the party was facetiously changed to “Hats” before it was canceled.
5. “Bloods and Crips" Party at Dartmouth
I’m all for brothers and sisters coming together to have a good, loving time, but that’s not even close to what happened when Alpha Delta fraternity and Tri-Delta sorority joined forces to heighten the powers of their racist antics. In July 2013, these two groups of Dartmouth students co-hosted a “Bloods and Crips” party which, for anyone who does not know, is a reference to arguably the most famous and violent L.A. gangs, both primarily African American.
One student who was on campus for “sophomore summer” and had attended the event wrote about it in an email, shared with the Huffington Post: “Individuals mingled for hours while dressed as bloods or crips while using racialized language. It then turned into a 'ghetto party' with racialized language, speech and dress. Over 200 individuals attended this event.”
In the morning everyone woke up, and lo and behold, became upstanding, politically correct citizens of their elite university again. Both the fraternity and the sorority acknowledged the party foul in diplomatic statements made, it would seem, through gritted teeth (Alpha Delta claimed “there was no ill intent,” calling the matter an “oversight”). No disciplinary action was taken, though Dartmouth administrators claimed to be possibly thinking about concocting some guidelines for not throwing parties that target minorities and women.
The very first lesson of history? It repeats itself. In 1998, white Dartmouth students — fake guns and fake afros blaring — threw a “gangsta party.” Students continued staging protests well after the fraternity and sorority behind the event issued their apologies. Black, Hispanic, Asian-American, and Native American students constituted less than 25 percent of the student body population 16 years ago; now that number is about 35 percent.
6. “Beer Olympics” Party at Columbia University
Sometimes you don’t have to look behind you for a history lesson; instead, look to your side. The Winter Olympics have closed, but the saga of sorority Kappa Alpha Theta’s “Beer Olympics” party, held just last weekend at Columbia, is still unfolding. If this particular story has one silver lining it’s that there's no lack of loyal opposition to what went down, since the party managed to be offensive to about half a dozen racial and ethnic groups.
For starters, women representing team Mexico donned all the unimaginative cultural cues: mustache, sombrero, maracas. Columbia’s Chicano Caucus criticized Kappa Alpha Theta’s choice of dress in a statement to the student paper the Spectator, which read in part, “The attire trivialized an entire nation’s history, its peoples, and its cultures. ... The term ‘cultural appropriation’ is not one that is discussed often at Columbia, and it is not one that is easy to define.”
Sisters on team Ireland brandished a sign that read “Kiss me, I’m a famished potato” (because nothing gets you in the mood like mass starvation), while those portraying Japan wore schoolgirl outfits and hachimaki.
The Columbia Panhellenic Association released a statement admonishing the sorority, “We are taking this matter very seriously and are working directly with members of the organization involved to address the situation.” As of yet, no disciplinary action has been taken.