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Princeton's 'Urban Congo' Controversy Highlights Race Relations

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Princeton University (photo by Shutterstock)

When an April 4 performance by the Princeton Urban Congo, a student group of white males on Princeton University’s swim and diving teams, was posted on social media, it placed a spotlight on race relations at the school.

Dressed in loincloths, the young men practiced what they thought was a humorous “percussion experimentation,” though, was essentially a mockery of African culture. The performance offended many Black students in the Princeton community.

“Though we did not intend to denigrate other cultures, we realize that this fact does not absolve us in the least,” the president of Urban Congo, Michael Hauss ’16, wrote in an apology. “We created something that was inexcusably offensive, and we appreciate all those who called attention to our mistake.”

The group, officially recognized by the university at the time the videos were taken, voluntarily disbanded.

On Sunday, President Christopher L. Eisgruber held a campus community gathering at the university chapel to discuss the recent event. He addressed the fact that students offended by the Urban Congo performance were harshly criticized on the social media site Yik Yak, which was reported by BuzzFeed.

According to The Daily Princetonian, some students turned their backs on Eisgruber, and some even walked out.

“Eruptions of hostile and thoughtless comments on Yik Yak have left many of our Black students, and our LGBTQ students, feeling anguished, angry and unwelcomed on this campus,” Eisgruber said. “These hateful comments have no place at Princeton. The anonymous cowards who post these messages debase all of us with their ignorance and contempt.”

He also said the different perspectives on the Urban Congo controversy have surprised him.

“Those of us in the majority culture often do not see the thoughtlessness or the insults borne by others,” he said. “And we do not appreciate the feelings of exclusion that result. We have a responsibility to change that.”

Eisgruber may want to revisit the issue of white male privilege that placed Princeton in the news last year. Perhaps that ideology led to the members of the Urban Congo group thinking it was acceptableand humorous to parade on stage in such a manner.

White Male Privilege

In 2014, Princeton student Tal Fortgang wrote and opinion piece, “Checking My Privilege: Character as the Basis of Privilege,” for The Princeton Tory, a journal of conservative and moderate thought. TIME magazine reprinted the piece with the headline, “Why I Never Apologize for My White Male Privilege.”

Hearing the phrase “Check your privelage” around campus frustrated the then freshman.

“‘Check your privilege,’ they tell me in a command that teeters between an imposition to actually explore how I got where I am, and a reminder that I ought to feel personally apologetic because white males seem to pull most of the strings in the world,” Fortgang writes.

He explains that his family endured many struggles and worked hard in order for him to live a favorable life. He concludes, “I have checked my privilege. And I apologize for nothing.”

The student seems to not have been educated on what white male privilege really means — social, economic, and political advantages or rights made available to white males in the U.S. since it was founded.

In his “Ask the White Guy” column, CEO of DiversityInc Luke Visconti writes the following in response to a 21-year-old white male college student who questioned the concept of white male privilege:

Thelegacy of slaveryhas benefited every white person in this country. Being white means you never have to think about race; you never consider that your application to college will be treated differently; that the police officer stopping you isn’t out for anything more than how fast you were going; that your boss didn’t really mean to insult you to your core when he said “You’re so articulate” or dismiss your entire being by saying “I don’t care if you’re Black, Yellow, Brown, Green or Polka-Dot “

After Fortgang’s opinion piece published, underrepresented students at Princeton created a Tumblr page, “I, Too, Am Princeton.” According to the website, its purpose is “to build a stage on which men and women of color can be included in the atmosphere of this campus.”

Creating Continual Dialogue

The web page dedicated to the Princeton Prize in Race Relations, an annual award for high school students demonstrating a commitment to advancing the cause of positive race relations, states:

There is perhaps no greater challenge facing our country than increasing understanding and cooperation among people of different racial backgrounds. It is a challenge that every new generation encounters. Princeton is strongly committed to advancing the cause of race relations on its campus.

This generation of college students is experiencing a time when race relations are at the forefront, with last year’s high-profile cases of thepolice-related deaths of Black males Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Tamir Rice.Most recently, the death of Walter Scott in South Carolina has dominated news headlines. The protests that quickly followed these tragedies sent a shockwave throughout the country.

Work remains to be done at Princeton to champion a culture of inclusiveness on campus and open discussion of racial injustice that allows for the freedom of expressionyet does not allow for groups of students to feel marginalized. Social media should not be the forum.

According to The Daily Princetonian, Emily de La Bruyere ’16 said Sunday’s gathering reflected the University’s “lack of normal forums for addressing these types of issues.”

“I think there needs to be a forum of constructive conversation,” she said.

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