Editor's Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to UCLA's Sigma Phi Epsilon (SAE) chapter as Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) on multiple mentions. UCLA's Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter was not involved in this incident, and the article has been corrected.
What was supposed to be a simple Greek Life mixer sparked claims of racism when students showed up in what appeared to be blackface.
The party’s theme, “Kanye Western,” was meant to “celebrate pop culture,” said members of the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity in a statement on Facebook last week. Students chanting “Black Bruins matter” crammed into the UCLA chancellor’s office on Oct. 8, two days after the party ensued on Tuesday, Oct. 6. An accompanying hashtag #BlackBruinsMatter exploded on Twitter that week after photos from the party appeared on various social media pages. The photos — despite not showing any member of either Sigma Phi Epsilon or Alpha Phi in blackface – sparked tensions on UCLA’s campus.
“Put simply, just because you can do something does not mean you should,” said the University in an email to The Daily Bruin, UCLA’s student newspaper.
The writer of the email has a point. Despite its hopefully well-mannered intentions, calling a party “Kanye Western” opens the floodgates for the possibility of racist tendencies. Donning blackface – which the fraternity later stated was in response to West’s hit “Gold Digger,” with the students going as miners – is never okay, regardless of one’s personal reasons. Despite how innocent wearing soot on your face may appear at the time, the overarching image of a white person with what can be obviously perceived as blackface subjugates an entire culture and exemplifies how racism is still a part of our society.
The racial tendencies did not stop at simply the perceived blackface; partygoers also padded their backsides in attempt to look more like West’s wife, Kim Kardashian. A similar issue was taken up at Arizona State University last spring when the school’s chapter of Tau Kappa Epsilon (TKE) hosted a Martin Luther King Day party at which students carried hollowed-out watermelons as cups, wore oversized basketball jerseys as dresses and put on blackface. TKE was suspended by the university for hosting the event. The UCLA event also comes months after a video surfaced of members of The University of Oklahoma’s chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) chanting a song riddled with racial slurs on a party-bound bus.
UCLA's chapters of Sigma Phi Epsilon and Alpha Phi are currently under temporary suspension, according to UCLA spokesman Ricardo Vazquez. Whether or not either chapter will be permanently removed from UCLA’s Greek row is unclear.
Events like the one that took place at ASU and the party at UCLA also show a deeper societal error. Despite living in what is considered a post-racial world, perceptions of race have morphed into a less obvious method. Dressing in blackface and padding one’s backside reveals a severe misinterpretation of African American culture. While the intention was not clearly racist, the actions that were taken are open to misinterpretation. To call the party hosts racist in this case is wrong – the blackface allegations were denied, after all, but to call the mistakes foolish and somewhat ignorant is valid.
The theme does not correlate to the direct use of blackface, or anything similar to it, since it was supposed to be soot; however, its ambiguity directly undermines the work of an entire culture to grow beyond the segregation. Dressing inappropriately in this way only works to further separate races, not bring them together. If our country is really as post-racial as it likes to call itself, then why is something like wearing blackface even thought of as being okay?
This is 2015. This is not the Jim Crow South, nor is it the time period in which racial segregation openly occurs. The students at UCLA – and all other colleges around the country – need to reevaluate their actions. Thanks to social media sites, the actions that occur behind the closed fraternity house doors often don’t stay there. This sadly falls in line with so many other college party failures that were so obviously meant to be kept private. This goes to show that whether it is public or private, the behavior is still unacceptable. Modern day students – Greek Life or not – need to understand that their actions, regardless of how frivolous they may seem at the time, are not always so simple.
This is the opinion of Julia Marzovilla, a sophomore English major from New York, New York. Email comments to Email comments firstname.lastname@example.org.