Duke erupts in furor over ‘racist’ party

Feb. 06, 2013 @ 06:52 PM

A fraternity party with an Asian theme that many have called racist has caused an uproar on the Duke University campus, leading to a formal complaint with the school, national sanctions, an angry flurry of wall fliers and a major protest Wednesday.

“What has happened has made us really angry and it happens again and again on this campus,” said Ashley Tsai, a senior at Duke. “This is not just about Asians or one party or one frat. This is something that keeps happening and it’s time to do something about it. And that’s what we’re doing.”

Tsai was one of several hundred Duke students gathered near the chapel Wednesday to vent their anger at a party invitation from the Kappa Sigma fraternity that featured a number of Asian stereotypes.

The initial invitation for the Feb. 1 “Asia Prime” Party began by mimicking stereotypical accented Asian speech and closed with “We look forward to having Mi, Yu, You and Yo Friends over for some Sake. … Chank You.”

In response to the invitation, the protestors chanted “racist parties make no sense — don’t party at our expense” and called for firm action on the part of the Duke administration.

“Something is deeply wrong with Duke, something is deeply wrong with our community,” said student Tony Gouw at the Race Is Not a Party rally. “Our lives can’t be reduced to a joke. I wish I would say the party was a fluke, but it’s only the most recent event [of its kind] on this campus.”

What the party organizers did, said Tsai, “hurt us, more than you can ever know.

“You hurt us when you made fun of our accents. You hurt us when you wore our skin as a costume. To you yellowness is a joke. To us it is our daily struggle. You told us we are not welcome at Duke.”

For too long, Tsai added, “racism has made Duke an inhospitable place. We cannot be silent anymore. We will not be silent.”

The protestors called for each fraternity member to be required to participate in a social justice project and for the creation of a Group Bias Incident Task Force on campus made up of leaders from student organizations representing “historically marginalized groups" that would respond to discriminatory actions by student groups.

Larry Moneta, vice president for student affairs, said Wednesday afternoon that no immediate sanctions against the fraternity — which had operated off-campus until last year after losing its charter a decade ago — are planned.

“The situation is still under investigation and it’s not clear at the moment if there has been any explicit violation of Duke’s rules and regulations,” Moneta said. “The event was thoughtless and offensive but we’re not sure if it actually broke any rules.”

Meanwhile, the operations of the local chapter have been suspended, according to Mitch Wilson, executive director of the Kappa Sigma national organization. The fraternity will undergo an investigation to determine the status of its charter, but all activities and events are now prohibited.

Complaints about the initial invitations and the party’s theme were made to Moneta’s office, “and our staff encouraged them to not hold the event as described,” he said. “We certainly pointed out its cultural insensitivity and hoped they would not go through with it, but unfortunately they did.”

After the complaints, the fraternity changed the name of the party to "International Relations” and “allegedly altered [the party] and intended to diversify but from our perspective, it went on as scheduled,” Moneta said.

On Tuesday several students, including Tsai, posted fliers across campus showing costumed students at the party wearing conical hats, sumo wrestler suits and geisha outfits, with their faces obscured.

The fliers noted, “The party went on as planned” and “if you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” According to The Chronicle, Duke’s student newspaper, members of Kappa Sigma were later seen removing the fliers as part of an organized initiative by the fraternity Tuesday.

Nevertheless, chapter president Luke Keohane apologized for holding the party in an email sent to The Chronicle.

“Upon learning of the deeply damaging effects of our email to our fellow students, we should have completely canceled the aforementioned party,” Keohane wrote. “The Duke Community in which we exist is one that we see too often as divided, and while our actions have brought attention to and widened that divide, it is our sincere intention to work to contribute to a United Duke.”

The incident is not the first of its kind at Duke. In November, the university’s women’s lacrosse coach apologized after photos from a Halloween party at her house showing a player in black face were posted on the school's website. Recent fraternity parties also have had Native American, Mexican and similar themes.

“I don’t think there are more incidents here than at any other school in America,” Moneta said. “It’s a national issue of confusion and ignorance. We probably have fewer such incidents than other institutions. But numbers are not relevant to remind us that young people can sometimes not be sufficiently aware of how stereotyping hurts.”

Changing that culture, Moneta acknowledged, “is an uphill battle, but I do believe we are making headway. The fact that the community is rising in opposition, rising in offense to something like this, really signals a transition. The folks who in the past would have silently endured this no longer do so. Because of that, I am optimistic.”