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'Ghetto Parties' Common On College Campuses

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Natasha Krzyzewski
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Backlash to a so-called “ghetto party” at Fairfield University in February has received national attention, drawing coverage from the Huffington Post,Teen Vogue and the New York Times.  “Ghetto parties” — theme parties where students often dress in costumes and act out stereotypes of urban Black youth — have a history in predominantly-white universities.

 An editor for the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education says they’ve been seeing parties like this one since the early 90s, when the journal first started documenting acts of race-based hate on college campuses.

Aaron Gurlly is a faculty fellow who teaches in the Department of Theatre, Dance, and Media Studies at Beloit College in Wisconsin. He remembers seeing his first “ghetto party” in the late 90s, when he was an undergraduate student at Truman State University in Missouri.

“I remember thinking, well, this is a little sketchy. I’m not quite sure if I want to be involved in something like this. But I remember specifically feeling like it would not be appropriate to say that,” Gurlly remembers. “It was a place where I didn’t feel particularly comfortable talking about race and in particular anti-black racism being only one of a handful of Black students on campus...unless it was something really over-the-top.”

Gurlly continued his studies in Boston, where he would hear about similar parties in the city with its multiple colleges and fraternities. But they failed to get the kind of widespread media attention, he says. 

“In a way it was weird. It kind of made me feel better about my college, that we weren’t sort of uniquely racist or anything like that.” says Gurlly.

Elijah Anderson, a Yale sociologist who studies race relations in public space, says that Black students can experience incidents like “ghetto parties” as “moments of acute disrespect." Those moments can lead them to perceive the university not as a cosmopolitan environment where everyone is welcome, but as a “white space” not built for them.

“Black people refer to this as ‘N Moments,’” he says. “They don’t tell their white friends about this -- usually they communicate it to their Black friends — but everyone knows the N-Moment. And it’s no fun. Because one of the things the N-Moment tells the Black person is, you don’t belong.”

Dan Green describes these moments as “microaggressions” that add up to make students of color question their right to be on campus. Green’s a Master’s student in social work at the University of Michigan. When he was an undergraduate at the same school, he was already putting up with small moments that made him feel out of place — constantly being asked if he was on the football team, or hearing from his Black peers that they were being encouraged to take an easier course load like they couldn’t handle academic rigor.

Then in 2013, when he was a senior, a mostly-white fraternity at the university called Theta Xi planned a so-called “Hood Ratchet Thursday” party on Facebook. School administrators stopped the party from happening, but not before the event went viral online. It said “rappers,” “thugs,” “basketball players” and “bad bitches” were invited and used phrases imitating African American Vernacular English, like “we goin back to the hood tonight.”

Green says when he heard about the party, it touched a nerve for students of color across campus. “It was kind of like the tip of the iceberg,” he says. “It wasn’t just like, one thing happened but everything’s fine. It was like, okay, this is — enough is enough.”

One student, sorority member Erin Fischer, wrote an excoriating opinion piece against the fraternity in the university’s campus paper, the Michigan Daily:

“Why can’t you just take the joke?” so many have already asked. I can’t take the joke because of the alarming number of fraternity brothers that have asked me if I’m from Detroit when I attend their events as one of the few women of color. I can’t take the joke because of the obscene number of times I’ve been asked to “twerk” and “dance” for these white men, because my Black identity obviously tells them I possess the inherent talent and desire to do so. I can’t take the joke because I don't have the luxury to remove the labels of “hood,” “ratchet” or “bad bitch” after the party ends. The privileged students on this campus tie those labels to my identity because of my racial minority status. I can’t take the joke because racism and oppression are alive and well on this campus; a campus where I’m often the only person of color in a classroom. ...Theta Xi invited the wrong “bad bitch” to their party.

The parties may not have changed since the 90s, but what seems to be changing is how people react to them. In the past five years, students have received widespread, usually negative, media attention for racist parties at schools like UCLA, Arizona State University, University of Pennsylvania, and University of Florida.

Other schools are finding students and faculty leading widespread campaigns against such parties when they occur. Michigan’s university administration responded to widespread outrage on campus and put a stop to Theta Xi’s party plans. Later that year, still reeling from the incident, the Black Students Union sparked a conversation about race on campus with a hashtag campaign that discussed being Black at Michigan —#BBUM — and a list of demands for the administration.

Michigan students aren’t alone, either. Aaron Gurlly, who remembers people usually “turning a blind eye” to these incidents when he was at his undergraduate college in the late 90s and early 2000s, thinks the response is a sign of a cultural change.   “I think people are reacting differently because of these national conversations we are having about race and racism,” Gurlly says. But he’s also cautious, pointing out a caveat that could prevent social change from happening in universities: students are a passionate but transient population, and school administrators can just wait until they leave.

When Gurly was getting his PhD at University of California San Diego, another “ghetto party” was planned. It was 2010, and became part of a string of racist incidents on campus. This time, much like at students fought back with widespread protests. Students at both schools made lists of demands for the universities to become more welcoming to people of color.

“The administration received the list and promised to look at the list and take the demands seriously,” he says, but  a few years later, when all the students had graduated, “none of them had been taken up.”

Fairfield University students seem to be reacting in a mixed fashion to the party on their campus. The school saw a small protest, mostly of community members and alumni, outside the campus this weekend, according to the Connecticut Post.  Meanwhile, some students condemned the event, while others said the party should not have caused offense

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One screenshot apparently from Facebook was posted on the Daily News of a student apologizing for wearing a hot dog costume to the party, in case such garb was offensive to the “hot dog community ” — that screenshot could not be confirmed by WSHU. The majority of Fairfield’s student body is white. Two percent of the school’s students are Black, and seven percent are Latino.

A university spokesperson confirmed there was a party and that it was “ghetto-themed,” according to the Associated Press, but told WSHU Public Radio that there was “no confirmation there was a themed party” and the investigation was ongoing.  

The school nonetheless held a forum on racism and diversity in response to reports of the party. Fairfield’s President has said the reported party “perpetuated racial stereotypes that have no place in our community."

Kathie is a former editor at WSHU.