I begin with apologies to my grandparents, probably my only loyal readers, because I intend to write about something exclusive to Penn today.
So, from what I’ve gathered, Chi Omega and Beta Theta Pi threw a party last week that was “gangsta” themed. A lot of people are upset about this.
This would seem like a simple issue from there, but there’s a lot of privilege to untangle here. Let’s dive a little bit deeper. There seem, to me, admittedly a complete outsider to this story, to be two different spheres here: first, the outrage in reaction to the party; and second, the reaction to the outrage in reaction to the party. I have problems with both sides here.
Ernest Owens has been the one leading the charge in promulgating the issue. He’s been pretty active over on his surprisingly professional website about the mixer itself. I appreciate that Ernest has done a lot to bring this issue to the fore. Given what I’m about to say about Ernest, I feel the need to make sure that this comes across sincerely: Ernest has probably done more work than anyone else in making sure that people like me know about this.
And yet, I see a consistent refusal on his part to practice what he preaches. My friend Jameel Mohammad had a Facebook status (unfortunately, I don’t know how to link to statuses) which conveyed an idea that I’m promoting here: while Ernest has done a lot to discuss the gangsta party, he has done a good job of making himself an inextricable part of the discussion. Given that, it’s fair to question his motives. Jameel had some interesting thoughts about whether Ernest was merely “speaking truth to power”:
That being said, the coverage I’ve seen thus far, most of it written and promoted by Ernest, is incredibly problematic in another way. Ernest, at this moment, stands perfectly poised to inherit the legacy of other incredibly well educated Blacks, especially men, whose personally beneficial careers are founded on the notion of “speaking truth to power”. This controversy has provided him the exact platform that he needs to ascend to the heights of blackademia or the liberal media “empire”. By using self-promoting hashtag#ernestwontbackdown, and referencing his “legal team”, Ernest is advancing the idea that he stands as the legitimate voice of Penn’s black community, a title that he stands to benefit from (in terms of social capital, and, like Cornel West and Tavis Smiley before him, financially). I wouldn’t begrudge him this, (I’m no stranger to a shrewd political move), if I didn’t think that his incendiary message had the potential to harm the nature of the day to day lives of black Penn students so seriously. Let’s be real, we’re not in a contested space, and we’re certainly not in the majority. We live within an institution where nearly all sources of power are controlled by white people, who, in some instances do not have our best interest in mind. That someone, who will be leaving campus in T minus 5 minutes, would sacrifice discussions that could bring about real tangible change in an effort to advance his own aspirations disappoints me. This is not to mention, that with the level of privilege that he has he could be addressing issues that impact the larger black community in far more dire ways than do things like the tasteless mixer that happened last weekend. But I suppose there’s no fortune to be made in real on-the-ground work.
I quoted the entire paragraph because I’m not entirely sure what to cut out. I would add something to this concern, however. Ernest was hypocritical in the comments of this post, suggesting that Jameel was interpreting the message incorrectly. I let my opinion be known, which is that the responsibility for a message being misconstrued falls on the messenger, not the listener. There is legitimate concern that Ernest is not advocating for change out of a desire for change itself; if the way he advocates causes some to think this way, then he needs to find a better way to advocate. I find Ernest’s refusal to reconsider how his advocacy comes across to his fellow students disturbing, given that he has been calling for Chi O (really hope I’m not butchering that. Is it hyphenated? Idk. Chi O til I die o) and Beta to reconsider how a gangsta party would come off to their fellow students. In fact, it took a call to action from Jameel to actually get Ernest to commit to some tangible change, which both Jameel and I insist is the more pressing issue here:
You know what? After considering Charnae’s comment (and some knowledge from my ever wise mother) I think they’re right. While I stand by my original opinions, I think it’s more important to move, not just the discussion, but the action forward. If you’re interested in having a forum, and then sitting down to compile a list of grievances, and a list of potential solutions, message me. We can figure out when, where, and how we’re going to work to move our community forward. As I finished my last post: it’s important that we always remain strategic.
Ernest might think #directactionbestaction, but I see much more leadership, and fewer useless, angry rants, coming from others.
Let us not, however, get distracted from the issue at hand. What exactly did Chi O and Beta do wrong? On the face of things, a “gangsta” party might not seem wrong. In fact, what’s the difference between the title of this post, which quotes a song by Outkast, and having a gangsta party? There’s a lot at play here.
We go to a prestigious, old-money university. That means that a lot of prestigious, old-money families send their kids here. Given the racist history of this country, those families tend to be white. However, Penn has been working on making sure that it is a university which caters to everyone, regardless of socioeconomic background. That means that we have an interesting clash of cultures here, where old-money white elites and no-money minorities are placed on a level playing field and pushed to succeed. Except it isn’t really level, is it. Equal access to Penn does not imply equality. There are those who are marginalized because certain social circles, like Greek life, is whitewashed. There are those who are marginalized because certain social activities, like downtowns, are expensive. Admittedly, Greek life certainly has more welcoming, beneficial, and substantial components to it and I’m not trying to belittle Greek life, nor suggest that it consciously marginalizes against those who are less fortunate. However, it is important to recognize that fraternities and sororities are inherently privileged, which makes it difficult for certain marginalized persons to thrive in that environment.
With this understanding of privilege, it becomes easier to see the fouls in a gangsta party. If those who are privileged care about equality at all, then their main goal should be to reduce their own privilege. Instead, Chi O and Beta threw a party where they, pretty clearly, exploited a marginalized culture. I think that argument should be unassailable at this point. Dressing up in “gangsta” style and drawing gang-related tattoos on yourself inherently suggests that that culture is nothing more than a prop to be used for the convenience of the wearer. It belittles the experiences of “gangstas” and otherizes them, implying that their way of life is less than. This smacks of white privilege. Given Chi O and Beta’s position of privilege, they carry significant influence on the rest of the Penn community. Thankfully, it seems that the backlash against them has been convincing in demonstrating that this is wrong. Yet, it is imperative for the future that the Greek community refuses to use other cultures as a prop to get drunk. I’d say it’s pretty easy to get schwasty without being racist.
This article in the DP, which makes light of recent mental health concerns at Penn in order to suggest that Chi O and Beta have been cyberbullied, is, to me, the perfect example of the privilege at play here. To my knowledge, no one has been actively cyberbullied. Calling out privilege and calling a party theme racist is not cyberbullying. It is belittling to those with genuine mental health concerns to use their genuine illnesses as a prop to gain sympathy for racism. Especially when one of the authors is a former Chi O. The optics on that are really not great. However, what’s missing from that article, most notably, is analysis of what Chi O and Beta did wrong. The authors gloss over the fact that Chi O’s and Beta’s actions caused significant distress to a large part of the Penn population to complain that the people who did wrong are being called out for doing wrong. Mallory Ortberg had a tweet – which I can’t find, so I’ll just link to her page and suggest you follow her and read everything that her website, the-toast.net, puts out – which summarized the way in which privilege works. It’s a doublethink where there’s a tension between, “I’m at the top” and “All of these other people are in my way.” On this campus, Beta and Chi O have the privilege of being at the top, but that article seems to think there’s people in their way.
So, what’s the difference between a reference to a song and a gangsta party? All the world. I love rap music. I’ve gotten into some pretty in-depth discussion on Facebook about, say, why Macklemore is just awful, or the importance of N.W.A. in establishing a theme for the original gangsta rap. I know what this is, and I treat it with respect. On the other hand, a gangsta party is just a bunch of privileged kids reinforcing the norm that those who are underprivileged deserve to me mocked and disrespected.
It’s now important to try and look at things from the eyes of Chi O and Beta. Both organizations are probably freaking out what’s going on here. They probably meant nothing wrong by throwing the party and are trying to figure things out. I hope this post does something to help you guys out. I don’t intend to be malicious, and I don’t think I have been. But it is important to understand exactly what you guys did. One of the problems with privilege is that, if you have it, you don’t really notice it. It colors your worldview and skews your vision, and makes you think that you can do no wrong. Beta and Chi O, y’all are privileged. Now you know this. So take a step back, think hard about what this means, and what the significance of the theme of the mixer is, and apologize. I know it seems that there are a lot of conflicting voices saying various things and they’re all shouting loud and it sucks. But no one will turn up their nose to a comprehensive, heartfelt apology.