Ideally, colleges and universities are places where young people go to open their minds, learn new ideas and interact with people from a variety of backgrounds. The reality tells a different story. With one university after another making headlines when students throw racist college parties inspired by stereotypes, it’s ever apparent that young people on campus may have closed their minds to people who don’t share their ethnic background. In short, racist university parties not only reveal that racism on college campuses is alive but that the younger generation isn’t likely to make race a non-issue in the future.
Not one, but count ’em, three universities have landed in the headlines after students celebrated Martin Luther King Day by mocking black culture. In 2007, photographs captured fraternity members from Tarleton State University in Texas “honoring” the King holiday by “eating fried chicken, drinking malt liquor from bottles wrapped in brown paper bags and dressed in faux gang apparel,” CBS News reported. To boot, a white woman clad in a red-and-white checkered apron and a bandana on her head posed for a photo with a bottle of Aunt Jemima syrup in hand. That year, students at two other universities—Clemson and Connecticut—also threw parties that mocked black people and culture on the King holiday.
In 2010, blacks made up fewer than 2% of the student body at the University of California, San Diego. Any unease about belonging to one of the tiniest groups on campus was certainly heightened when fraternity members and others threw an off-campus party described in fliers as the “Compton Cookout” in which attendees were promised “purple drink,” chicken and watermelon, to name a few, for this party with a “ghetto” theme. The “Compton Cookout” made national headlines, with politicians who represent the Los Angeles suburb of Compton weighing in on the controversy. Although the event, sparked outrage, it also led to diversity dialogues on the UCSD campus. Moreover, some the fraternity members involved were suspend by their organizations.
Santa Clara University may be located in liberal Northern California, but that didn’t stop students of the Jesuit institution from throwing a “South of the Border” party that promoted racist stereotypes of Latinos. Students, many of whom played on the school’s volleyball, basketball and golf teams, attended the event dressed as janitors, gangsters, domestics and pregnant teens. Evidently, it wasn’t the first time such a party was held at the university. In 2006, Santa Clara students held a “Fresh Off the Boat” party in which various immigrant groups were mocked. After “South of the Border,” more than 250 students and faculty members participated in a silent march to make a statement about racial stereotypes. Diversity forums were held as well.
In May 2007, members of Phi Sigma Pi at the University of Delaware threw a Cinco de Mayo party in which students dressed as gardeners and in “red, white and green shirts with the word ‘Mexico’ on the front, and ‘Spicy’...and ‘Full of Tequila’ on the backs,” reported the Associated Press. Some even wore work shirts emblazoned with the names “Pedro” and “Jose” and a racial epithet. After public outcry, the fraternity members who took part publicly apologized, saying they did not mean to be offensive. "I did not fully understand...how harmful the idea of dressing in this way could be to a community," said one attendee. In addition, UD’s chapter of Phi Sigma Pi took disciplinary action against the students.
Even the Ivy League isn’t immune to racially insensitive parties. In 2010, the Sigma Chi fraternity at Harvard celebrated Columbus Day by organizing an event known as “Conquistabros and Navajos.” Attendees were encouraged to dress as one or the other. Adrienne K. at the website Native Appropriations pointed out that the party was insensitive because it made light of the genocide of indigenous peoples. She noted that a Holocaust party would such a theme would have elicited public outcry. She asked, “What if we rewrote their invitation...to a new party called ‘Jew-bros and Nazi-hos?’...dress as anything related to WWII/The Holocaust, e.g. Hitler, Nazis, The Gestapo, Jews and soldiers.” Harvard Sigma Chi later apologized for the party theme.