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17 USC 102

Why Won't AU Fraternities Confront their Racist History?

March 1, 2019

 

After Virginia's political system was sent into a whirlwind earlier this year over their governor's yearbook blackface scandal, American University's administrators and student journalists identified several photos of blackface and other demonstrations of racism in our university's own yearbooks. As it happens, some of these photos show members of fraternities that still operate on campus. But unless you go digging through old yearbooks, you won't find these images readily available anywhere. The fraternities in question went to frightening lengths to suppress information about their racist pasts.

 

As the Eagle reported, Phi Sigma Kappa and Alpha Sigma Phi fraternities contacted the campus newspaper requesting that pictures of their "brothers" taking part in various racist actions not be displayed. Phi Sigma Kappa claimed that pictures showing their members hanging someone in effigy and wearing Native American headdress could not be proven to be racist. Apparently, according to this fraternity, the man using an ethnic identity as a costume was "part Cherokee." Alpha Sigma Phi, for their part, said that as long as other fraternities are having their pictures taken down, they don't want to miss out on the absolution. "The photos removed for PSK were no less controversial than [their] own," Alpha Sigma Phi claims. The latter fraternity even threatened to sue the Eagle if these photos, which are posted in public archives, were published.

 

Needless to say, these fraternities are absolutely wrong on this matter, both in the claims they make and the way they approach the topic overall. At the most basic level, of course these photos depict racism. That is patently obvious. Going through them individually, we can start with the hanging in effigy. While it is conceivable, I suppose,  that the person being hanged was not meant to be a black person, it is crucial to remember that this photo was taken in the last few decades on an era when lynching of black men was treated as a spectator sport in much of the United States.

 

Even today, American University still faces issues with metaphoric hangings being used to oppress black people. It was barely more than a year ago when Taylor Dumpson, the first black woman to be president of our student body, was threatened on her first day in office with bananas hanging from nooses. The still anonymous author of this hate drove home their point even further by writing "AKA free" on the bananas, referring to Dumpson's historically black sorority. The message is clear: black people do not belong at American University. With this history, both nationwide and on our campus, it is unconscionable for Phi Sigma Kappa to brush off their own past effigy hangings as nothing to be concerned about.

 

Then we come to the matter of American Indian headdress and the "brother" wearing it. I cannot imagine how Phi Sigma Kappa in 2019 determined that the man in this photo from a half century ago was "part Cherokee." While I have no way of knowing the truth there, I find this claim dubious for two reasons. First, in the era of legal segregation, it is hard for me to believe that many Cherokee students attended American University, if any at all. The second reason is grounded less in an understanding of American history than my own experience as a white person. White people love saying that they are "part Cherokee." It's right up there with Crocs and singing "Mr. Brightside" at karaoke. 

Native ancestry claims often serve only for white people to use American Indian identity — the actual lived experience, emotions, pain, and history of real people — to make their own identity superficially more interesting and "exotic."

 

Leaving aside the actual veracity of whether all white people are one sixty-fourth Native American, they virtually never have lived an actual American Indian experience that would allow them to use that identity in any way that is not at least disrespectful. Even the ancestral claim itself can be problematic, as Elizabeth Warren is learning. It often serves only for white people to use American Indian identity — the actual lived experience, emotions, pain, and history of real people — to make their own identity superficially more interesting and "exotic." Phi Sigma Kappa furthers this trend by hiding behind what is likely a lie about the ancestry of one of their random "brothers" from several decades ago.

 

Then we get to the blackface, the particular racist trope that initiated this whole process. Alpha Sigma Phi displays a truly juvenile mindset in their request for taking down their blackface photo. "No fair," whines ASP. "If PSK doesn't have to confront their past racism, why do I?" If Alpha Sigma Phi wanted to be adults about this, they wouldn't threaten to sue the Eagle over a photo from the 1960's. They would use this discovery as an opportunity to educate themselves and others about past and continuing racism and reaffirm their commitment to inclusion.

 

I know many good people in AU's fraternities, and my comments here should not be taken as an indictment against all of them. But as a member of this campus community, I am profoundly disappointed that these fraternities are capable of this absolute masterclass in doing the wrong thing. When presented with the fact that past members took racist photos, they could have responded with engaging, productive conversations about how to make their organization better going forward. They could have simply apologized. Even doing nothing at all would be better than their actions. But no, these groups attempted to excuse past injustice and sue other students to suppress the truth. These actions are totally repugnant and an excellent reminder that the fight for justice rages on every day.

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