How to not have a racist frat party

A typical frat party drinking game scene

Derogatory, disrespectful, bigoted and racist. Those are the words Nicole Daniels uses to describe a Duke University fraternity’s Thanksgiving theme party, dubbed “Pilgrims and Indians,” which encouraged guests to “tap into your inner pocahotness” and enjoy a “cornucopia of treats in our modern-day teepee.” There is plenty of room for debate over whether the party theme is as egregious as Daniels argues, but one thing is for sure: the backlash was totally predictable.

Less than two years ago, members of the UC San Diego chapter of Pi Kappa Alpha were the subject of national scorn after they planned a “Compton Cookout,” encouraging guests to celebrate Black History Month by looking “ghetto” and snacking on “chicken, Kool-Aid, and, of course, watermelon.” Observers rightly condemned that party as racist and ignorant. It led to huge protests on the UCSD campus; the Black Student Union even declared a “state of emergency.”

After that kind of acrimony, you would think the social chairs of America’s fraternities would proceed with a little more caution and sensitivity.

As a former fraternity social chair myself, I know what a challenge it is to come up with a fun and interesting fraternity party theme that college students will actually want to participate in. That’s no excuse, however. It’s really not that difficult to steer clear of controversy when planning an event. In fact, UC Davis Greek Life has put together a handy list of guidelines for choosing a theme that doesn’t perpetuate racist and sexist stereotypes. Here’s an excerpt:

1. Does the activity reinforce stereotypes which should reasonably be understood to have historically prevented disadvantaged persons in our society from reaching their full potential?

2. Are the circumstances associated with the action or activity (e.g. advertisements, decorations, garb of the participants, etc.) of the type which should reasonably be recognized as likely to exacerbate the negative connotations of the theme itself?

3. Are the above circumstances, or any of them, exacerbated by negative behavior associated by the consumption of alcohol?

4. Does the registered student organization have a history of holding events where negative behavior associated with consumption of alcohol or public drunkenness has occurred?

5. Does the information available suggest that the theme, advertisements, decorations, or garb were chosen to mock or degrade the group(s) associated with the theme?

6. Does the information available suggest that the theme, advertisements, decorations, or garb of the activity were chosen with the intent to incite breaches of the peace or disorder within the campus community, or under circumstances which suggest that such breaches of the peace or disorder in the campus community were understood as likely to result?

Fraternity and sorority leaders everywhere would be wise to consult these standards the next time they need an edgy party theme. I suppose not being a racist would help, too.

(Photo credit: opacity on Flickr)