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Here We Go Again – Frat Racism at Syracuse

You know, you’d think that after blackface party costumes at an Auburn fraternity became a scandal in the national newsmedia, frat boys would learn that blackface is not all that good of an idea as a prank costume.

If you did, you thought wrong. In what seems to have been a conscious decision to further shatter my faith in the basic human capacity to learn from past experience, Aaron Levine, a member of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, went on his fraternity bar-hopping party dressed in blackface [Syracuse Daily Orange], in what he claims was a Tiger Woods costume.

After student protests, the case was referred to the Office of Judicial Affairs. Levine faces possible expulsion from the school for violation of the Code of Student Conduct and the fraternity faces possible suspension.

The protesting students also demanded structural changes to school policy to improve the institutional racial environment, including new policies for reporting and punishing similar incidents, diversity training for students and employees, and reinstatement of the Black Student Union Building and Black Panhellenic House.

Meanwhile, Levine has said the following in his defense:

  • The my one black friend thought it was O.K. excuse — According to Levine, he asked a Black fraternity brother (SAE is predominantly white) whether the costume was offensive, and he said it was not. Whenever there’s a scandal over a blackface costume I see this same excuse and I still can’t figure out why anyone even bothers offering it. So your one Black friend thought it was O.K. Fine — but your one Black friend does not think or speak for all Black people in the world. This is mind-numbingly obvious and yet they go on using this excuse as if it meant something. I have to wonder whether it’s really just a way of saying Hey, man, some of my best friends are black rather than actually responding to the person offended.

  • The you’re taking this way too far excuseEverything’s being blown out of proportion, Levine said. It’s hard to please the mob. I’ll talk to any individual. This excuse is useful to Levine — it lets him pretend that he is the martyr of an irrational mob rather than actually personally engaging with the people who are confronting him. Well, look, I understand the feeling that this has gone way further than you ever meant it to go. But that’s the nature of the beast. When you offend someone, you don’t get to choose just how much s/he is supposed to be offended. If you’ve offended someone, your job is to take accountability for what you’ve done, to personally engage with them and understand where they are coming from.

    This seems to come from a general misunderstanding of what it means when a person’s speech or actions are offensive. Now, people can certainly be intentionally offensive–think of the average grade school bully. But most of life is not like this. If it was only what people intended that could be offensive, then a lot fewer people would be offended, because most of the time people don’t intend to piss each other off. But most of the time, what’s offensive has nothing to do with what the person intended; it has to do with what s/he was willing to ignore. In dressing up in blackface for shits and giggles, Levine surely didn’t intend to piss everyone off, but he was ignoring a long and bloody history of brutal racism behind blackface. And that is offensive, not just to people of color, but to anyone with a sense of history and a hope for racial justice. Which brings us to…

  • The I am too stupid to take responsibility for my actions excuseLevine said he had no knowledge of the history of blackface. Well, I guess that’s obvious. But rather than getting defensive and protesting his innocence, Levine ought to take this as an opportunity to educate himself about why the hell people are so pissed off at him. There is a history to these images. They are not just obsolete ephemera flashing across a History Channel documentary. For more on blackface humor and the history of white supremacy behind it, I recommend Bryan Thomas’s column Bamboozled: A True Story [Bryan Thomas. Talk.], and Spike Lee’s spectacular film Bamboozled.

How much longer is it going to take before Universities start getting serious about promoting diversity and undermining institutional racism in their campus culture? We shouldn’t have to wait for scandalous incidents like this one to realize that, in a culture where white privilege deeply shapes the composition and direction of most campus cultures, we need to take some serious steps to open up the University as a space in which students of color can participate. Students of color need spaces such as multicultural center buildings, where they can come together to build their voice and strength for participation in the campus community. Administrators and faculty need to prioritize programs which educate students about the history of race in American culture and politics, and which facilitate greater understanding and openness across racial/ethnic lines. Given the relationship between race and economic class, they also need to talk seriously about making college more affordable and a better experience for low-income students. Administrators need to get serious in holding the organizations and individuals responsible for hate images responsible, but what’s far more important than that is that they also work towards creating and maintaining a campus environment in which people actually understand something about race and white students don’t just think that throwing around casual racism is O.K.

(In related news, Auburn may be faltering or even failing in this regard, despite the bold promises administration made after our own blackface scandal hit the national airwaves. But that is another story entirely; watch this space for the upcoming story on developments in Auburn.)

And for God’s sake, how much longer is it going to take historically white fraternities to realize how much it hurts them, as people and as an organization, to allow this kind of institutionalized racism to fester in their houses? Every few months another incident like this happens. It hits the news, people yell, the frat boys get punished, and then it happens again at another frat house somewhere else in the country. Or it even happens again at another frat house on the same campus, as if no-one in the historically white Greek system had ever figured out that this might just not be cool with other people. I mean, Christ, even amoebas can learn through operant conditioning. Can’t we expect at least that much cognitive functioning from frat boys?

For further reading:

  • GT 11/14/2001 Auburn chapter of Delta Sigma Phi dissolved, and how anti-Southern prejudice undermines the struggle for change in the North and South
  • GT 11/14/2001 Auburn chapter of Beta Theta Pi dissolved, and commentary on the moral crippling of laid-back liberalism
  • GT 11/9/01 the broader context of racism in Auburn
  • GT 11/6/2001, the original report on the Halloween blackface incident
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