Culture of insensitivity must change

Feb. 09, 2013 @ 04:43 PM

What were they thinking?

Surely, someone in the Duke University chapter of the Kappa Sigma fraternity must have heard the plans or seen the invitation for the now-infamous “Asia Prime” party and thought, “we can’t go there.”

But if anyone did, they kept silent or were unheard.

Even after student affairs officials warned the fraternity it was making a mistake, the event went on with only cosmetic adjustments to its thoughtless, hurtful theme.

“Our staff encouraged them to not hold the event as described,” Larry Moneta, vice president for student affairs, said as a firestorm over the party erupted on campus and off.

“We certainly pointed out its cultural insensitivity and hoped they would not go through with it, but unfortunately they did.”

The first invitation to the party mimicked stereotypically accented Asian speech and closed with “We look forward to having Mi, Yu, You and Yo Friends over for some Sake…Chank You.”

Pictures posted on campus last week by angry critics of the party showed students who attended wearing conical hats, sumo wrestler suits and geisha outfits.

The party, said Ashley Tsai, a senior who spoke at a protest rally Wednesday, “hurt us, more than you can ever know.”

The party was clearly wrong. It would be wrong if it were an isolated incident but in its aftermath many at Duke have cited the fact that it is hardly that.

“I wish I could say the party was a fluke,” Tony Gouw said at the rally. “But it’s only the most recent event on this campus” with similar overtones of racism or insensitivity.

Moneta pointed out – correctly – that incidents like this happen everywhere.

But that hardly excuses Duke – which aspires to and generally achieves a much higher plane.

In fact, it is because of its elite status – and its unfortunate history of being in the spotlight for student misbehavior – that events like this attract wide attention.

The university has been forthright in condemning the party and protesting students say administrators are receptive to exploring what some students referred to as “an apology of action.”

The response must be unequivocal – this sort of behavior is neither permitted nor condoned at Duke. At the very least, some sanctions against the fraternity are in order, and it would not be out of line to require members to take part in sensitivity training.

Encouragingly, there is some evidence the fraternity itself recognizes that. Chapter President Luke Keohane took part in an open discussion Wednesday evening hosted by the Asian Student Association and Duke Student Government.

“Our actions are inexcusable,” Keohane acknowledged, according to The Chronicle, Duke’s student newspaper. “We’re not here because we want to defend ourselves. We’re here because we want to learn.”

Changing a campus culture is difficult – but it has to start somewhere. Perhaps with Keohane’s words, this unfortunate incident will actually begin that cultural shift.

Duke should do all that it can to see that it does.