A few weeks back photographs leaked online of a "ghetto fabulous" party at the University of Texas started a controversy at the college. As reported by the Daily Texan student newspaper the photos showed white law students sporting "Afro wigs, large necklaces with medallions and name-tags with fake historically black or Hispanic names while holding 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor" at a party. When the photographs were brought to the attention of the dean of law students he ruled that he "didn't believe the students were malicious or racially motivated and no disciplinary action would be taken."
Similar parties have taken place in the last few years at the University of Chicago, Cornell, and Texas A&M. Many websites link to photos of these events online. It's taken the often observant Bob Jensen to make a few observations on these events in a colum that appeared in Zmag:
The motivations and views of participants may vary, but these parties have two consistent features: (1) white people mock African American and Latino people through stereotypes of the residents of low-income urban areas, while at the same time enjoying the feeling of temporarily adopting these looks and poses; and (2) the white folks typically do it without pausing to ponder what right they have as members of a dominant racial class to poach in this fashion on the lives of people of a subordinated racial class.
In other words, white people find pleasure in insulting non-white people while at the same time safely “slumming’ for cheap thrills in that non-white world, all the time oblivious to the moral and political implications.
Even with the gains of the civil-rights movement, U.S. society is still white supremacist in material terms (there are deep, enduring racialized disparities in measures of wealth and well-being, some of which haven’t improved in the past four decades) and ideology (many white people continue to believe that the culture and politics of Europe are inherently superior). To pretend that things such as a ghetto party are not rooted in those racist realities is to ignore fundamental moral and political issues in an unjust society. It’s not about “negative racial overtones” -- it’s about racism, whether conscious or not. It’s not about being “racially insensitive” -- it’s about support for white supremacy, whether intended or not.
These incidents, and the universities’ responses, also raise a fundamental question about what we white people mean when we say we support “diversity.” Does that mean we are willing to invite some limited number of non-white people into our space, but with the implicit understanding that it will remain a white-defined space? Or does it mean a commitment to changing these institutions into truly multicultural places? If we’re serious about that, it has to mean not an occasional nod to other cultural practices, but an end to white-supremacist practices. It has to mean not only acknowledging other cultural practices but recognizing that the wealth of the United States and Europe is rooted in the destruction of some of those cultures over the past 500 years, and that we are living with the consequences of that destruction.