The College Party Conundrum: Social Acceptability And Racism


Recently at Duke University a fraternity was called out by the Asian Students Association for throwing an “International Relations” themed party. The party was originally labeled as “Asia Prime,” but the members of Kappa Sigma chose to rename the party in light of opposition on campus. The party, which occurred on February 1st, featured some often used stereotypes of the Eastern Asian community, including an email video containing a clip from the movie Team America: World Police that portrayed deceased North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il in a negative manner.

The cultural community at Duke has lashed out in response to the fraternity, giving the party the hashtag moniker “#RacistRager.” Obviously the marginalization of certain cultural communities has profound emotional effects on those in the community. But if we step back and look at the broader picture, we have to ask ourselves the question: Is it really that obvious if the stereotyping of only certain cultural communities causes such a response? Why are some stereotypes socially “safe” to ridicule while others require defense and responsive action?

Duke wasn’t the first university to have to deal with culturally themed parties, and it certainly won’t be the last. Alternatively, it is not only members of the Greek community who throw and attend these events. The difference is that when an unaffiliated group decides to create one of these events, there is no overarching body in place to reprimand them for their actions. I’ve personally attended culturally based events at both Greek and non-Greek functions, and the only difference is that public backlash only ensued when Greeks were involved. So while we have a natural (and well-founded) intention to stop negative stereotypically behavior around campuses, we also have a blatantly obvious double standard when it comes to our reactions to them. If there is an overarching body that can impose political pressure upon the people who choose to create and attend these events, then there is a justifiable backlash in the local community (campus). Building on that, the justifiable backlash is only fully realized when there is an alternate overarching body of governance for those people who would plan and attend those events (such as the Greek community). If we are going to attempt to stop these events from occurring, we need to ensure that the less visible and less publicized, non-affiliated events are given equal exposure by the cultural community. To do so otherwise is not only unethical but exhibits the exact sort of profiling and stereotypical reinforcement that is being fought against in the first place. Why is it culturally acceptable to lambaste, ridicule, and mimic the Greek community (or certain other communities) but not ones based on certain other ethno-cultural localities?

The Double Standard Revisited

Every year at campuses across the country, certain stereotypes are deemed socially “safe” for ridicule while certain others require backlash and forceful response. Why is this possible and how can we address it as a society? To realize why we allow the reinforcement of certain stereotypes while actively attempting to remove others, we need to examine and understand one of the most codified problems with race relations in the United States: the eventual acceptance of previously excluded groups into general American “white” culture. We also need to extrapolate on the creation of culturally exclusionary groups on American campuses and why certain cultural groups are able to form what basically amounts to a local lobbying committee while others are not.

Since the end of World War Two, three ethno-cultural groups have been assimilated into the generic “white” culture of the United States: the Irish, Italians/Sicilians, and Jews. Previously in American history, these three groups have all been on the receiving end of racial and/or cultural discrimination as well as government discrimination in their ability to move beyond their particular social strata at the time of their immigration. Each time that these particular cultural groups moved to America, they dealt with a period of cultural and class separation, distinct homogenous living communities, and overt racism towards the stereotypes that “white” Americans held against their cultures. The longstanding result of this is an American society with extremely subtle racial stereotypes against these peoples, except the difference between them and the cultural communities of today is this: representation of demeaning stereotypical behavior for these communities not only occurs frequently but also occurs without significant social repercussions. Why is it that it is considered socially acceptable (or at the very least tolerable) to dress like a “guido,” Sicilian mobsters, Leprechauns, “drunken Irishmen,” or to tell someone who is frugal with their money that they are “Jewish” or that they have a “Jewish” nose? Furthermore, what does this say about our cultural melting pot society in America? Does it say that once we are no longer marginalized by our cultural differences due to assimilation into “generic white” American culture then we are free to depict the cultural stereotypes of our ancestors in demeaning ways without societal repercussion? Alternatively, is it possible that it’s socially acceptable to have these depictions of certain ethno-cultural stereotypes simply because when the stereotypes were first created there were no overarching organizations with enough influence to negate the effects of said depictions? To answer this question, we should look at the one negative stereotype that’s commonly deemed as “acceptable” (not tolerable, acceptable) in America.

The “White Trash” Stereotype and Why Nobody Cares

I can say with a certain level of certainty that most social college students have probably attended some variation of a “White Trash” party during their tenure at their university. I can also say that doing a cursory Google search about “White Trash Party Backlash” yields absolutely no results where a party was thrown and subsequent groups were outraged. Why? This is a degenerative, hurtful, and spiteful stereotype of a specific subculture of America in economic poverty and yet… no one says anything about it. Most likely because white people from a low-socioeconomic background don’t tend to go to college as often as other “cultural” minorities. The biggest difference between the two types of stereotypes comes from the singular fact that when people are grouped together due to socio-economic class instead of ethno-cultural similarities, there is no overarching body to protect them from persecution through negative stereotype portrayals. Since there is no effective “lobbying group” who is pushing for the respect of these individuals, our society tends to believe that mocking them is completely OK and demonstrably separate from any other type of cultural stereotyping.

This extends past the “White Trash” stereotype however, and pushes back into the subject that I touched upon previously: since there is (for the vast majority of college campuses in the USA) no overarching body who is able to protest or combat the depiction of certain stereotypes, those stereotypes tend to be viewed as “socially acceptable” for mocking and amusement.

  • Jersey Shore party? Reinforcement of a Negative Stereotype
  • Compton Cookout party? Reinforcement of a Negative Stereotype
  • Toga party? Reinforcement of a Negative Stereotype

Everyone forgets that the national popularity of the toga party came to fruition with the release of the 1978 National Lampoon film Animal House. A film that depicts multiple negative stereotypes concerning the collegiate Greek community ranging from drug use, wanton destruction of public property, invasion of privacy/peeping Toms, alcoholism, academic dishonesty, adultery, racism, animal cruelty, disrespect of authority, rape by deception, statutory rape, and the list goes on. Yet toga parties are a staple of the college community and no one would ever say something negative about their occurrence. But that’s ok, isn’t it?

Similarly, no one complains when a 3rd generation or later member of a negatively stereotyped race perpetuates their own cultural stereotype by mimicking the actions of their immigrant predecessors. We place so much of our anger and disapproval of these actions upon those who are different than us, yet when we perpetuate our own negative stereotypes it’s deemed as (mostly) socially acceptable.

In the end, we all need to remember the most important factor in this entire discussion: it’s just kids. Kids who for the most part are going to be naïve about their actions and how they may (or may not) actually affect those who are being negatively stereotyped. Because we all do it, every single one of us is guilty. And if we’re going to lambaste students for portraying and extending racial/cultural stereotypes, we need to be equal across the board about it. We need to realize that you can’t exclude the stereotypes of lower class white society in America, or the stereotypes associated with cultural groups that have been assimilated into “white” America over the last 120 years, or any other group that has a negative stereotype attached to it.

“They actually act that way.”

“Dude bro let’s go get hammered tonight and find some slams!”

“Herro Nice Duke Peopre!”

“I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.”

“Whaddup homie, how it crackin’ tonight?”

“Drinkin’ beer, watchin’ Nascar, git’er dun!”

“Gym. Tan. Laundry. GTL all day!”

“I don’t cut grass, I smoke it!”

“Just doing it because it’s true.”

Why are we willing, as a society, to accept even one of these if we’re not willing to accept them all?

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Image – Animal House