Updated 3/19/14, 2:41pm to correct information about the closing of the Chi Omega sorority at Penn State.
By Julissa Catalan
Racially themed parties dubbed “racist ragers” have sparked controversy on campuses across the U.S., most recently at Columbia University.
Sorority Kappa Alpha Theta is in deep water for the offensive photos posted online following its “Beer Olympics” event. Members of the sorority as well as of fraternity Sigma Phi Epsilon dressed in offensive stereotypical costumes meant to represent Ireland, Mexico, the Netherlands, Jamaica and Japan. Proof of the most distasteful depiction came courtesy of Theta president Katie Barclay, who posted two photos on Facebook, in which eight girls wore sombreros and mustaches while holding maracas and bottles of tequila, along with T-shirts of a distorted Mexican flag that read “Down to Fiesta.”
The university’s Chicano Caucus was especially insulted and released this statement: “While we understand that the actions taken by these members may not have intended to be harmful, they were in fact offensive. Stereotypes are used to oppress marginalized communities. These pictures caricaturize Mexican culture and should not be overlooked. The attire trivializes an entire nation’s history, its peoples and its cultures, reducing them to a mere mustache and sombrero. Though the attire was meant to represent Mexico in a game of Beer Olympics, in actuality it perpetuates the American stereotype of the sombrero-wearing Mexican-American migrant worker, distorting the culture into a form of entertainment.
“That’s not to say that members outside of the Mexican culture cannot dress in our cultural garb or partake in our traditons. However, altering the Mexican flag is not the way to participate in a respectful manner.
In its own statement, Columbia’s Panhellenic Association said it would like to “emphasize that it does not at all condone behavior or language representing any form of cultural insensitivity, whether intentional or not. Again, we truly apologize for any harm the incident and photos in question may have caused and are actively working to rectify the situation, as well as to address the concerns of the community, to the best of our ability.”
The sorority at Columbia isn’t the first to have a “racist rager.” Just last week, the Penn State University chapter of Chi Omega was shut down by its national organization after spending more than a year on probation for throwing an offensive, Mexican-themed party. Photos of more than a dozen sorority girls circulated on various social-media sites in which they wore mustaches and sombreros, and held signs that read, “Will mow lawn for weed + beer” and “I don’t cut grass I smoke it.”
Kappa Sigma fraternity at Duke University was suspended earlier this month for holding an Asian-themed party, complete with conical hats, geisha outfits and signs with intentional misspellings. Email invitations for the “Sigma Kappa Asian Prime” event included misspellings like “herro” and “chank you.”
And in January, Arizona State University’s Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity was permanently shut down following a racist Martin Luther King Jr.themed party where attendees wore jerseys and drank from watermelon cups, while using the hashtags #blackoutformlk and #hood on social-media sites.
For decades now celebrities have influenced pop culture and its fads. It is no coincidence that while stars such as Katy Perry have recently been under attack, and even called racist, for appropriating other cultures, there has simultaneously been a surge in the “racist rager” trend.
Since the release of her album Prism, Perry has repeatedly received backlash for her exploitation of other cultures. More recently, Perry performed her song “Dark Horse” on the Brit Awards. Her interpretation: Cleopatra (at a rave.) Ethnic groups and historians were in an uproar over the sexed-up, neon rendition, mostly over its historical inaccuracy.
To take it another step further, Perry then released the music video for the same song. This time, the singer, staying consistent with the Egyptian theme, was blasted for a clip in which a suitor disintegrated while wearing a pendant that read “Allah” (the Arabic word for God). After offending thousands of Muslims, the medallion has been digitally removed from the video, thanks to a Change.org petition started by Shazad Iqbal, who felt the video was “highly controversial to its viewers as a result of its portrayal of blasphemy.”
Last year, Perry received similar criticism for her geisha-inspired performance on the 2013 American Music Awards. Perry, who performed on an intricate stage covered in cherry blossoms with taiko drummers and fellow geishas, wore an Americanized kimono. Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Jeff Yang explained, “In short, this was a full-barreled technicolor assault on a quarter-millennium-old set of traditions that would’ve given any self-respecting denizen of Kyoto’s Gion District a massive fatal heart attack,” Yang continued. “But Perry’s whiteface/yellowface performance was also a harsh reminder of how deeply anchored the archetype of the exotic, self-sacrificing ‘lotus blossom’ is in the Western imagination.”
Prior to her performance, Perry tweeted, “I think I am turning AMA,” referencing the 1980 song “Turning Japanese”.
In all fairness to Perry, she certainly isn’t the first celebrity to come under fire for inaccurately portraying a culture, or for using a religious symbol in a music video. Does “Nothing Really Matters” by Madonna ring a bell How about “Like a Prayer“
Whether a pop star or a sorority girl, one thing is clear: It is never appropriate or acceptable to play dress-up in another culture’s folkloric garb, especially when it is done so inaccurately or with a negative connotation.