Unless you've been living under a rock, it's pretty clear that racial tensions in America are higher than they've been in years. All of which makes the latest edition of "Racist Fraternity Party Themes" that much more baffling.
Mere days after a Staten Island, New York, grand jury voted not to indict the officer who killed Eric Garner, the Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter at Clemson University betrayed their impressive ignorance with a "Crips"-themed holiday party. The fraternity invited revelers to wear bandanas, sagging pants and Tupac shirts to celebrate "Clemson Cripmas," a reference to the Crip gang, which originated in Los Angeles and is composed primarily of black members.
Besides making everyone at the party look like an idiot, the theme is based on a deeply entrenched and equally problematic stereotype of black people as thugs — as dangerous, unsavory and criminal for the way they may dress, speak or behave. And it has permeated society in ways that no longer have anything to do with actual gang affiliation.
Of course, the off-campus party at the South Carolina university and the photos stemming from it didn't happen in a vacuum. Rather this speaks to the need for continued discourse at predominately white colleges and universities in order to make "diversity" less of a buzzword and more of an actual community value.
The outrage, not surprisingly, was swift. As reported by WSPA-TV, photos on Instagram and Twitter with the hashtag #ClemsonCripmas quickly circulated following the Saturday evening event. As word spread around campus, black community members at Clemson organized a protest that caught the attention of the university president. To their credit, the national headquarters of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, according to WSPA-TV, has suspended the Clemson fraternity's activities indefinitely. Some leaders in the chapter have also since resigned.
This is much more than an instance of juvenile hijinks. Events like racially themed parties can create a hostile environment and deep-rooted disrespect for people of color, who rightfully end up feeling like they've become the butt of a nasty joke.
Unfortunately, these kinds of events keep cropping up at institutions of higher learning.
Earlier this year, the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity at Arizona State University found a different way to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. They hosted an "MLK Black Party," where attendees were clad in basketball jerseys, sagging jeans, caps, sunglasses and held drinks in watermelon cups — playing not only on "thug" tropes but also the racial stereotypes about food. The chapter was eventually expelled from the university.
In July 2013 two Greek organizations at Dartmouth collaborated on a "Bloods vs. Crips" party, where some students carried around 40-ounce bottles of beer and malt liquor in brown paper bags. Around 200 students were in attendance; an email invitation had instructed them to "choose wisely" which gang they'd represent.
It may seem redundant, but "dressing up" as gang members and "thugs" is neither clever nor funny. These stereotypes are one of the many ways racism permeates our culture, with the end result being that black people are seen as inherently other — and lesser — than the white people masquerading as them. These types of parties expose the underlying issues that prop up racial biases, while also highlighting how far we need to go in terms of sensitivity and equality.
In a context where black people are routinely profiled or killed while unarmed, this incident shows that racial tensions still exist and implicit bias colors everyday interactions. Clearly, white students have the privilege of moving through the world not worrying whether their racial identity is a liability. "White Christmas," indeed.