Education

A Racist Party Infuriated Students. This Is How Universities Can Do Better.

CREDIT: Brandon Wade, AP

Darmita White and about two-dozen others protests outside the family home of a former University of Oklahoma Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity member Parker Rice, Wednesday, March 11, 2015, in Dallas.

Fairfield University students held an off-campus party last weekend. The theme was “ghetto.”

The university’s full-time student population is 78 percent white, The New York Times reported. Although university officials claim that no one at the party wore blackface, students say partygoers wore baggy clothes and held bottles of 40 oz. Coors Light, according to CT News Junkie. A Fairfield University student, Juanita Rainey, told the site that “Even though the school is becoming more diverse, the students aren’t being integrated well… So it’s disappointing because I’ve had all these friends, who I thought were okay with me, happily attend this party to make fun of black people.”

The anger over the party theme wasn’t enough to change students’ attitudes. One student responded by mocking the people who were upset, writing sarcastically on the class’ Facebook page, “I would like to apologize for my attire last night, I wore a hot dog costume to this party and now feel that my actions must have caused emotional harm to all of the hot dog community.”

“The university is dedicated to continuing cultural diversity on campus … We will learn from this,” a university spokesperson, Jennifer Anderson, said to The New York Times. The university’s president has called the student body to join him in “personal accountability and meaningful action to make us a better institution.”

But Fairfield University is just one of many universities grappling with this issue. Texas Tech, University of Florida, Indiana University, Duke University, University of Chicago, and Dartmouth College, among many more, have histories of students holding parties based on offensive racial stereotypes. The recent controversy over a Yale University faculty member hitting “reply all” to criticize an email advising students to be considerate and avoid wearing blackface shows just how far campuses still have to go when it comes to creating an inclusive environment.

So what should universities do to ensure that white students shift their attitudes and understand their responsibility to treat their fellow students with dignity and respect?

According to David Westol, the founder of Limberlost Consulting, which provides strategic planning and consulting services to campuses and helps educate the Greek community on racist incidents and hazing, universities can front-load students with information on how to be more sensitive. Students need to become aware of how racist acts affect students of color, and these conversations need to be ongoing for them to be effective.

Westol also noted that larger forums for students to talk about how to end racist incidents on campus and how to respond to racist behavior aren’t always the best way to have these discussions. He said that smaller groups, attended by student leaders, can work better.

“They’re going to stay in their cultural silos unless you a) give them an opportunity and b) encourage and even without mandating to say, ‘We really need to sit down and listen to each other. Some of the most compelling discussions I’ve heard and have participated in come from undergraduate students who have been hurt by these things,” Westol said.

But it’s particularly effective if students see that the administration and faculty lead the way, condemn the racist incident, and explain why it was wrong.

“If you see people you respect saying, ‘Hey this is not a good thing we’re engaging in and this is not good behavior and there is a better way and here is our advice, and here are things you can do,’ that’s helpful,” Westol said.

He said the best example of a university taking a stand against racism was the University of Oklahoma’s decision to shut down its Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter last year after video emerged showing the brothers leading a chant that included racial slurs. The response was swift and unwavering in its condemnation of the behavior, rather than waiting for media attention to blow up and eventually force the administration to act. Two students were also expelled.

In regards to Greek organizations, Weston said that he often finds students who belong to fraternities presenting a free speech argument without understanding that free speech does not mean freedom from consequences from that speech.

“I can’t tell you how many times I sat in front of a president and said, ‘What were you thinking when your chapter created this T-shirt?’ They say, ‘Well, we just thought it was funny.’ And I say, ‘Well laugh all your way to probation. Welcome to life. Your chapter is on probation.’ They say, ‘Well what about the first amendment?’ And I say, ‘When you said you were beholden to the values of the fraternity, that included making good choices about things like this. There is no such restriction for a private organization.'”

But one of the most effective things universities can do is to listen to students, he said.

“More importantly, what can we do to do a better job? If you ask students, they usually have the answers and that’s what you’re seeing in campuses across the country right now,” Westol noted.

The University of Chicago, Boston College, Ithaca College, and many other institutions of higher education have had student protesters who provided a list of demands for how to make campus life better for students of color. These recommendations often range from including more staff members whose job it is to ensure students of color feel welcome on campus to visiting real consequences on students and student groups that perpetuate a toxic campus climate for students of color. After three university executives have stepped down from their posts or announced they will step down in the near future, following a lack of attention to these requests, it’s possible that more universities will take a more proactive, not reactive, role in making students of color feel at home in their own campuses.