Reflecting on themed events, cultural appropriation and safety in Greek Life and student run parties

Tuesday, September 5, 2017 - 4:59pm

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Emma Richter/Daily

Welcome Week has come and gone — but with every year comes a controversy and the question of safety and inclusion with Greek Life and student-run parties.  

Themed parties

A trend often seen is the adoption of a minority’s cultural traditions by a majority group, called cultural appropriation.

This summer, the University’s chapter of the Delta Sigma Phi fraternity recently faced criticism for a planned Ancient Egyptian-themed party, which was later canceled after facing backlash from University student activists and social media.

The fraternity’s now-deleted Facebook invitation invited people to “honor our Egyptian roots and join us on the night of September 1st to celebrate our newly built pyramid” and “come to Delta Sig as a mummy, Cleopatra or King Tut it doesn’t matter to us. Get your best ancient Egyptian robe and headdress and be ready to party in the desert. Be careful though, it’s going to get HOT.”

Business junior Yasmeen Afifi, president of the University’s Egyptian Student Association, voiced her concerns about the party theme in a Facebook post. As an Egyptian herself, Afifi found the party’s theme disrespectful.

“It is more saddening to see students from the top public university in the United States engaging in these ignorant stereotypes,” she wrote. “My Egyptian roots are far more significant than a simple costume or a lame party.”


University members of Delta Sig were unable to comment on the situation.

The situation echoes the 2013 Theta Xi incident, when the University’s chapter of the frat planned to host a “World Star Hip Hop Presents: Hood Ratchet Thursday” party. The party was canceled due the theme’s appropriation of Black culture which offended many. 

The invite page, hosted by now University alum Allen Wu, called all “rappers, twerkers, gangsters (no Bloods allowed), thugs, basketball players, bad bitches, ratchet pussy.”

Wu went on to justify the party’s theme by stating it was directed toward hip-hop music, not African American culture. In an opinion piece published by the Daily, Wu explained his longing for a society where music genres are not immediately associated with a racial identity.

“It pains me to see that ‘hip-hop parties’ are immediately cast under a racial lens, even if not so intended,” Wu wrote. “Just because we celebrate and enjoy the music and terminology used by predominantly Black hip-hop artists, that does not mean we are attempting to appropriate Black culture.”

Wu still received disapproval. Due to students’ concern with the party’s theme, an email from University officials condemning the party was sent to all students. The email was signed by E. Royster Harper, the University’s vice president for student life, Dean of Students Laura Blake Jones and Greek Life Director Mary Beth Seiler.

“We were deeply disappointed to learn that members of a university fraternity had planned an offensive themed party for November,” the letter stated. “The language of the invitation and theme of the party denigrated all women and African American/black identified people through racial stereotypes and cultural appropriation.”

The hashtag #BBUM — Being Black at the University of Michigan — was started by the Black Student Union as a reaction to the party theme.

The hashtag has grown into a movement that has sparked national conversation about diversity and inclusion on campus. When the Theta Xi party theme broke to the public, the Black Student Union twitter account posted a screenshot of what appears to be an email, denouncing the party’s theme.


Cultural appropriation from frats is an often heard tale: In May, the Baylor University chapter of Kappa Sigma frat was suspended for their “Cinco de Drinko” party in which students came dressed in sombreros, some in brown face. In 2016, Bowdoin College, in Maine, had a similar party.  

For Afifi, the issue of white people appropriating minority cultures spans wider than Greek Life at the University. She wrote on Facebook she believed these fraternities, made up of predominately white males, need to step back and recognize their place in society as a majority group. Considering throughout history white people have oppressed minority groups, Afifi wrote she found it inappropriate for these fraternities to comfortably craft these themed parties.

“This is much larger than just a party; it is the privilege that led this frat to think this was remotely okay that needs to be analyzed. White people need to cognizant of their identity and their role throughout history,” she wrote on her public Facebook post.

Evelyn Alsultany, Associate Professor of American Culture, believes these parties are not intentionally appropriating other cultures. She adds the fraternity brothers throwing these parties feel "their fun is being policed by political correctness”.
 
"However, the reason these parties are especially controversial on college campuses is that we are at an educational institution where there are ample opportunities to learn from each other’s identities and experiences and to take classes to learn about diversity and racial politics (for example through the Race and Ethnicity requirement) with the goal of bettering ourselves and the world,” Alsultany said.
 
Phi Beta Sigma, a member of the National Pan-Hellenic Council, has collaborated with IFC chapters on campus on different occasions. LSA junior, Jesse Love, Vice President and Treasurer of Phi Beta Sigma, has generally found little to no issues when these collaborations, be it for parties or conventions, happen. Recently, the fraternity successfully co-hosted a party with IFC’s Phi Delta Theta chapter.
 
“From my chapter’s perspective and our point of view just in general, we try not to go into situations with predispositions. … We went into the situation with a completely open mind, open to their suggestions, and them open to ours, so it was really just an open dialogue, we didn’t go into it thinking or expecting them to act any kind of way,” Love explained in regards to planning the party.

Safety

At the bottom of many events on Facebook, hosts include a warning message.

Debs Cooperative House has previously included the statement: “No racism, homophobia, sexism or any other forms of being a dick is allowed here. Don't be that person.”

A former social fraternity— known as a metal frat —  hosted a “300 Underwater New Year’s Party” on Sept. 2. The Facebook invite page read: “ABSOLUTELY NO SEXIST, RACIST, HOMOPHOBIC, TRANSPHOBIC, ABLEIST, ETC BEHAVIOR OR LANGUAGE WILL BE TOLERATED. THOSE WHO VIOLATE OTHERS AND CREATE DISCOMFORT WILL BE REMOVED FROM THE PARTY AT THE HOUSE'S DISCRETION. DON’T BE THE WORST.”

In some cases, fraternities have made it clear that behavior deemed culturally inappropriate will not be tolerated, but there still remains a question if this warning to partygoers is enough. One University student, who is in a fraternity, said although his organization never puts out a direct disclaimer, good behavior at their parties is expected.

“It is understood and assumed that that type of behavior is unacceptable. Honestly, we tend to stay away from any kind of parties with a theme that's a country/religion/etc.” he said.

Members of Greek Life claim these incidents of inappropriate behavior have occurred rarely in previous years. Yet, it still remains an issue fraternities and hosts must be consciously aware of when throwing a party.

“It’s just important to be upfront about our inclusive policy,” LSA junior Summer Stern, “300 Underwater New Year’s Party” co-host, said. “It’s important to us that people feel OK in the house.”

One LSA junior, who requested to remain anonymous, said they find Greek Life to be “inherently sexist.” They went on to explain fraternities are free to plan parties; however, sororities would be punished and/or banned if they did the same.

“In regard to each party, I think it is no different than a regular house party or bar scene, excluding the every-so-often case of inappropriate sexual behavior that is sometimes reported and sometimes not,” they said.

An LSA senior, who is in Greek Life, believes these types of written statements are “a step in the right direction.” The student said though the statements have good intentions behind them, they often fall short of solving the issue of inappropriate behavior.

“I think ultimately individuals are going to make mistakes, whether it be a simple slip up or purposefully, and it is always hard to control people who are not initiated members of your organization,” the student said. “Nobody can force another how to act or speak, but we can all encourage one another to make good choices.”

An LSA junior in Greek Life who requested to remain anonymous, does not think the written statements accomplish much. While the statements are meant to eliminate negative behavior, they may not do enough to stop the issue from happening.

“Despite the disclaimer, it does not ensure that people don’t show up to the party degrading a racial/ethnic group,” this student said. “However, I believe it is a good effort from the frat and shows a good intention that they are putting the disclaimer out there.”

Nevertheless, the issue of cultural appropriation across the campus, to some, is growing. The University recently created a new position: a “bias incident prevention and response coordinator.”

“The core work of the Dean of Students Office includes promoting a safe, respectful, healthy, and inclusive campus community, enhancing students’ Michigan experience, providing support services and managing critical incidents impacting students and the campus community, and recognizing and responding to emerging needs within the student population,” the University of Michigan’s website stated, according to the article.

The Daily reached out to multiple official chapters on campus, who in return declined to comment.