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UVA Latest in String of Blackface Incidents

UVA Latest in String of Blackface Incidents


Two University of Virginia fraternities tarnished in a “blackface” incident at a Halloween party will not be expelled from campus, according to a Dec. 2 ruling by the school’s Inter-Fraternity Council.

While blasting the members of Zeta Psi and Kappa Alpha Order for “an apparent historical blindness and lack of sensitivity,” an IFC judiciary panel ruled that the members’ actions within the bounds of constitutionally protected free speech.

“Clearly this has damaged … our reputation,” said IFC President Philip Trout, a UVa fourth-year student, commenting on the panel’s recommendation that both houses impose education and internal discipline programs for members.

The incident at UVa is only the latest in a national string of “blackface” incidents, but it had special resonance here because the fraternities involved were two of UVa’s oldest and most prestigious. Zeta Psi was chartered on the campus in 1868, while the Kappa Alpha Order has been there since 1873.

The news that one individual at the party dressed as Uncle Sam in blackface with an Afro wig, while two others dressed as tennis champions Venus and Serena Williams also resounded like a thunderclap against the backdrop of tenser-than-normal race relations at the university. A short time before the party, 400 African American students had marched on the offices of the student-run Cavalier Daily newspaper to protest a racially insensitive op-ed piece and to seek greater diversity in the selection of op-ed writers. That confrontation did result in the addition of several new reporters to the roster, according to Chris Wilson, Cavalier Daily news editor.

In the most recent incident, though pictures of the racially insensitive costumes circulated on the Web site for some time, the story did not become public until a Nov. 18 report in the Cavalier Daily. While students were remarkably measured in their initial remarks — “I don’t think this is indicative of the general nature of the IFC,” or Inter-Fraternity Council, said Black Fraternal Council Vice Chairman Okem Nwogu — response from authorities was swift.

Both fraternities were suspended by national fraternal leaders, with Larry Wiese, executive director of the Kappa Alpha Order, calling the students’ actions “offensive and wrong.” UVa President John T. Casteen III and Vice President for Student Affairs Patricia M. Lampkin, meanwhile, issued strong statements to the student body.

“Human dignity, decency, mutual respect, and understandings informed by a genuine knowledge of history … belong to all of us, not just to the students affected,” said Casteen in his Nov. 22 statement. “Efforts to make this university an authentic cross-section of what we are as a country and progress made toward this goal are too important to be cast aside by the careless acts of a few.”

Though Kappa Alpha’s national suspension was lifted after an investigation determined that all of the offending students were Zeta Psis, the fallout from the controversy is far from over. Zeta Psi is still on national social probation, both fraternities are still on suspension from the campus IFC, and the IFC’s Judiciary Committee announced Nov. 26 that both chapters would be tried on charges of committing racially offensive acts.

Meanwhile, the campus remains in a ferment. The night of the trial announcement, the top officers of the IFC, Inter-Sorority Council, Black Fraternal Council, Multicultural Greek Council, Student Council, the Asian and Latino Student Unions, among others — convened a historic dialogue on diversity and the Greek system. Trout called the meeting, he said, because “I wanted to initiate a dialogue about race and the Greek system and get ideas as to where the IFC needs to go from here. Diversity is definitely a long-term issue. This incident has only accelerated our efforts.”

By Kendra Hamilton

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