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Feb. 18 2010 - 12:15 pm | 2,425 views | 0 recommendations | 5 comments

‘Compton Cookout’ Frat Party Draws Civil Rights Leaders’ Outrage

Triton Pride

Image by olasisucsd via Flickr

Yearning for a taste of “life in the ghetto” – which of course includes a bevy of gold-teethed women and plenty of fried chicken and watermelon?

Too bad you missed out on a party thrown by students at UC San Diego, many of whom belonged to the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity (the frat’s president has said it wasn’t an official event). Billed as the “Compton Cookout,” a Facebook invite to the event encouraged female attendees to show up looking like “ghetto chicks” who “usually have gold teeth, start fights and drama, and wear cheap clothes,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

The party’s effects will now ripple all the way across the state:  ”In Sacramento, Assemblyman Isadore Hall III (D-Compton) said leaders of the Legislature’s black, Latino, Asian Pacific Islander, gay and women’s caucuses would gather outside the Capitol on Thursday to condemn the party.”

One UCSD history professor told the Times that he was “outraged but not surprised” – and he’s precisely right. Parties like these ones – offensive, degrading, and idiotic – are hallmarks of Greek life on campuses across the country. Look, I am not under the impression that fraternities are bastions of sensitivity and subtlety – I know much better. But one only need to have not been in a coma for the past 20 years to understand how wrongheaded and likely to provoke outrage playing up racial stereotypes like these ones can be.

During my tenure at USC’s Daily Trojan, I helped oversee coverage of a similar party, this one themed “Welcome to Mexico” that included a makeshift barbed wire fence guests had to maneuver to make it inside. A Latino student filed an official  complaint after passing the party, and was harassed by fraternity members for a long time afterward as all of the university condemnation got underway.

Some parties have simple, vague themes like “Heaven and Hell” or “Welcome to the Jungle” – but there are always others that unnecessarily indulge racial stereotypes. In 2007, Cornell students protested the existence of racially-themed parties after a series of offensive gatherings with themes like “South of the Border” and “Pimps and Hos.” At the University of Santa Clara, students at a 2007 party promoting Latino stereotypes came dressed as janitors, female gangsters and pregnant women. Perhaps one of the worst incidents was at Macalester College in Minnesota, when students at a “politically incorrect” party wore blackface, KKK costumes and nooses. Countless other stories like these have made the news.

College may be a time to make bad decisions; but any idiot has to know that these events are going to upset people, and land them in trouble. When they happen off campus, and organizations like fraternities obviously aren’t going to accept responsibility for them, there’s very little recourse – other than the public shame that comes their way when these parties make the news.


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    Dear Chancellor Fox:

    I am writing to you concerning the continued racial controversies at various University of California campuses. Since the noose left at the UCSD library has been removed, I’m contemplating to send you a new one. Why? Because a good old-fashioned lynching is in order.

    Before you rush to conclusions, let me explain.

    The current episode of turmoil began with a local party whose theme poked fun at stereotypes supposedly representative of South Central LA. Any reasonable person would readily perceive this approach as satire, a longstanding literary and dramatic device. Was it offensive? As with most satire, it definitely was – and that is good.

    You see, when we are offended, we are likely to react. Unless that reaction is simply a knee-jerk response (such as that by your office), a reaction requires activation of one’s brain. You may agree that activating our brains is infinitely preferable over mindlessly swallowing whatever b.s. we happen to be served.

    One particularly unpalatable piece of b.s. that is shoved down our collective throat is “diversity.”

    In its original form, diversity is highly desirable. In nature, biologically diverse ecosystems are less vulnerable to diseases and more productive than monocultures. On a university campus, opposing (or even merely different) viewpoints spur lively debate, which in turn fosters creativity and innovation. Without question, humanity collectively benefits from the contributions inspired by a large variety of backgrounds and experiences.

    Why has the University of California chosen to adopt race/ethnicity as the single decisive factor in furthering diversity? Are you ensuring UCSD receives a balanced mix of Republicans and Democrats? Gays and heterosexuals? Opera lovers and metal heads? Meat eaters and vegans? How about students who prefer the writings of Ayn Rand versus those of Karl Marx? Perhaps a proper mix of students interested in quantum physics and aspiring poets (and those writing poetry about quantum physics)? Folks that can appreciate Dr. Seuss on a subversive level, and those who can’t? I’m virtually certain that more diverse viewpoints will result from any of these arbitrary traits than the color of someone’s skin.

    I assumed that college application essays served to differentiate students beyond grades and test scores. It appears that with all the budget cuts, there is no staff to read them. Therefore, instead of treating students as the unique individuals they are, it seems easier to simply lump them into categories with emotionally charged labels.

    Sure, race and ethnicity, along with height, weight and gender, are the most obvious traits we notice about people we meet, before they have a chance to open their mouths and let us glean some insight into more substantial aspects of their personas. But isn’t that precisely the sort of simpleminded superficiality higher education is supposed to eradicate?

    Throughout history, people with their own agendas have used arbitrary traits to unite, divide and discriminate against people. Each time, they applied a nice, shiny euphemism. “Preserving family values” – sounds like a good thing, right? How about “preserving the pure blood of the Aryan race?” It gives us cold chills today, but it sounded perfectly benign, even laudable, during the Nazi era.

    Another shiny euphemism is “diversity.” If we add more “blacks” (however you may define that label), we will create a student body that is more balanced and representative of our society – so goes the reasoning du jour. Are we going to assume that “blacks” … come from challenged socioeconomic backgrounds? Are more conscious about human rights? Have rhythm? Jump higher?

    I am not privy to UCSD’s list of stereotypical “black” traits. Make no mistake, that list exists, even if it is only implied – because every time we attempt to force a group of diverse (in its original meaning) individuals under a labeled (or red and white striped) hat, we give birth to such a list. Such a list, while perhaps not offensive at first glance, is far more damaging than the list of attributes used by the Compton Cookout as the recommended attire, behavior and attitude of its attendees. Because any list that is born under the auspices of a prestigious institution such as UCSD will automatically be imbued with a sense of legitimacy.

    The characteristics we choose to identify others and ourselves mark the dividing lines between social groups. By focusing on race, we are furthering this broken model of diversity.

    If we allow racial definitions to divide us, if we allow the fear of symbols to control us, if we allow the threat of persecution to silence us, our race – the human race – will succumb to the worst form of slavery.

    This is my call to hunt down and publicly execute the ignorant and racist notions that have hijacked the concept of diversity. What better place than a library, a place of learning and organized knowledge? Let’s hang these ill-conceived ideas from the rafters and let their rotting corpses remind us that if we want to vanquish racism, we must start by treating all people equally.

    For if we allow misguided preconceptions to live, we are bound to witness the death of the accomplishments brought by the Civil Rights Movement, of free speech, and of our human dignity.

    Yours sincerely,

    The Cat in the Hood

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    I'm a Los Angeles-based writer and editor focusing on pop and politics, race and culture, and where Gen-Yers fit into it all. My writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Christian Science Monitor, WashingtonPost.com, the San Francisco Chronicle and People magazine. Among other things, I'm Oregon-born, hip-hop-addicted, and weirdly optimistic that the journalism business will stay alive.

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