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Students Stand Up Against Racially Offensive Parties

The demise of Chief Illiniwek was a long time coming, but one group that helped pressure the University of Illinois to drop the mascot was a coalition of students, faculty and community members that formed in the aftermath of a “Tacos and Tequilas” party that offended Mexican American students. The party, thrown by five White fraternities and sororities in October, was just one in a series of racially insensitive parties thrown by college students.

The party, the administration’s lackluster response and its support of the Chief Illiniwek mascot deemed racially offensive to American Indians compelled the student-led group Students Transforming Oppression and Privilege, or S.T.O.P., to urge administrators to do more to promote racial tolerance.

“It is important for us and young people in general to speak out, to make sure their campuses have anti-racism platforms and missions,” says Iara Peng, the director of Young People For, or YP4, a national network of young leaders on 65 campuses in 18 states.

Across the country, more students are speaking out against racial insensitivity, illustrated recently by the string of student-thrown theme parties that play up ethnic stereotypes. Recent incidents include:

·         In January, at Texas’s Tarleton State University, White students dressed up in so-called “gangsta” apparel, drank malt liquor and ate fried chicken. Among the costumes was a female student dressed as Aunt Jemima.

·         That same month, another White student dressed up in Blackface at a similar party at Clemson University. 

·         White students at the University of Texas at Austin in September also dressed up in Blackface, carried 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor, wore Afro wigs and huge necklaces and name tags with stereotypically Black and Hispanic names.

·         A fraternity at John Hopkins University invited partygoers to sport “bling bling” metal caps on their teeth. Other parties have occurred at the University of Colorado and the University of Connecticut.

 “Young People For rejects this behavior, which is promoting harmful racist stereotypes and retrograde attitudes on campus,” Peng says. “Young People For calls for students and campus administrators to take responsibility for racist behavior and implement policies that discourage it. It is crucial to promote increased diversity education on campuses and preserve affirmative action policies.”

Peng says a lot of YP4 fellows have been protesting insensitive parties and using national communication mechanisms like blogs to expose the injustices on their campuses.

YP4, launched in 2004 by the People For the American Way Foundation to invest in the next generation of leaders, supports hundreds of students yearly through a one-year fellowship programs. It currently has 470 fellows in the network and 180 current fellows.

One of those YP4 fellows that heeded the call to hold students and administrators responsible for the demeaning parties is Reem Rahman, an Illinois student who helped organize S.T.O.P. The coalition formed as a result of the “Tacos and Tequilas” party, in which White students dressed up as gardeners and plumbers. Some female students put padding under their shirts to make themselves look like pregnant Mexicans.

“The students didn’t find anything to be apparently racist or offensive about their actions and their apologies were not forthcoming,” Rahman says. “And the chancellor didn’t release a statement condemning the events. It wasn’t until hundreds of students started protesting did the chancellor release a statement, and even then the statement failed to adequately describe the seriousness of the offense or to acknowledge it as part of a deeper reoccurring issue on this campus.”

S.T.O.P. subsequently called for the “Racism, Power, and Privilege” public forum, which was held Feb. 1 and attended by more than 2,000 students. Forum-goers discussed the issues and submitted a list of seven demands to the university.

In addition to the removal of Chief Illiniwek, those demands include: ensuring a safe and hospitable environment for all students; a consistent and transparent process for student advocacy; increased academic resources for marginalized programs like ethnic studies; diversifying the faculty; recruiting and retaining students from marginalized populations; and for the university to not enter into contracts or business relationships “which violate human rights, exploit workers or promote environmental degradation.”

“I and many other student and community members on this campus have been working extremely hard so that no other student has to experience the level of fear, frustration, intolerance and disempowerment that we have felt on this campus,” Rahman says. “There is a sense that this time our protest, our voices and our calls for action will be heard and lead to real change across campus. It is our hope that our actions and demands can be used as a model to challenge the racism, power, and privilege at other universities.”

–Ibram Rogers


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