Column: On tequilas and tacos, race and understanding

By Brian Pierce

Imagine for a moment that the headline on the front page of today’s Daily Illini declared that a fraternity and sorority had held an exchange in which attendees came in blackface and ate watermelon and fried chicken. Now, back off from that just a tad, and you’ll have the actual headline, declaring a “Mexican Exchange” held recently by the Delta Delta Delta sorority and Zeta Beta Tau fraternity with the theme, “Tequilas and Tacos.”

At this exchange, participants hit pi¤atas, wore sombreros and wife-beaters, dressed as gardeners, and had fake bellies to pose as pregnant Mexicans. Pretty hilarious, huh?

A response to the event quickly mobilized. Cultural organizations and houses expressed their disgust, the president of the Panhellenic Council condemned the event, the Illinois Student Senate’s Cultural & Minority Affairs Committee began formulating a response, and the presidents of both Delta Delta Delta and ZBT, Emma Miller and Brandon Keene, issued letters of apology.

Patty Garcia, the president of the United Greek Council, wrote a letter to administrators, faculty, cultural house directors and student leaders calling for ideas on how to “address, correct, and educate” students about this matter, saying “I feel that it is only right that something at a larger level gets done.”

This is not the first event like this. For years fraternities and sororities have held ghetto-themed parties that play off racial stereotypes just as this exchange does.

In an e-mail to me, Keene, who attended the event, said that the leadership of his chapter “did not have reservations prior to the event, nor did we see it as offensive.” He continued by saying that “a few individual members of the fraternity and sorority involved did engage in insensitive stereotyping,” and said the chapter would “work with the counseling department to increase awareness so that a situation like this can be prevented in the future.”

Many will be tempted to use this event to paint the Greek system with the same brush, much the same way this exchange painted the Latino community with the same brush. But the Greek system is an all too easy scapegoat for what is in reality a campus-wide and nation-wide problem. Be it this exchange, the unthinking “humor” of Carlos Mencia, or the minstrel show that is VH1’s “Flavor of Love,” our society has come to celebrate racism by labeling it irreverence. In the widespread national outrage over “political correctness,” we defend negative stereotypes as “jokes” and can thus claim anybody who doesn’t like them simply doesn’t have a sense of humor.

But where is the joke? Where is the biting satire, the witty observation, the clever pun in a group of privileged, predominantly white college students playing “dress-up-like-a-person-with-darker-skin-than-you”? How exactly can that be interpreted as funny?

And yet, as Garcia put it in her letter, “I just don’t think that the campus community completely understands why it is wrong to make money and entertain yourself through a culture.”

And so the University must respond. The answer is not merely inflicting punitive wounds on those who organized and participated in this embarrassment. Some have called for the Delta Delta Delta and ZBT houses to be shut down. Such a solution would do nothing but foment more anger and resentment and would lead the University down a slippery slope of regulating what students think and how they express themselves.

A better solution is available. A broader campus-wide educational campaign should be undertaken. Far too many students will laugh this event off and roll their eyes at those who have been offended. But the behavior engaged in here was not a joke, it was an insult.

This is not an overreaction by the PC-police coming to stifle the free exchange of ideas and turn everybody into humorless automatons. Part of this University’s obligation to educate and enlighten is to persuade students of the fact that this kind of behavior is deeply wrong. Anything less would be negligent.