Frank: Focus on Greek costume scandal neglects larger racial issues

The Sigma Phi Epsilon—or SigEp—fraternity at the University of California, Los Angeles has come under intense scrutiny after hosting a “Kanye Western”-themed party with the UCLA chapter of Alpha Phi International Women’s Fraternity on Oct. 6.

Some prominent media outlets such as The Los Angeles Times claimed that students in SigEp and Alpha Phi wore “blackface” to the party. Not only did the publication use the term “blackface” incorrectly, but it also diminished the severity of real racism.

The party’s theme was not racist in the slightest. Kanye West is a cultural icon who transcends the culture of one race—he is important to societal culture as a whole, not just black culture. Women in Alpha Phi also dressed up as West’s wife Kim Kardashian. They stuffed their dresses with material to imitate Kardashian’s famous—or infamous—cover shot on the November 2014 issue of PAPER magazine. These are fun party ideas that encourage controlled debauchery.

The issue of “blackface” arose, however, when a group of women dressed up as gold miners in reference to West’s 2005 hit “Gold Digger.” The women smeared some charcoal on their faces to imitate the stereotypically dirty miners. This—although not the smartest decision—was not in any way, shape or form “blackface.” The women walked around holding plates with gold glitter on them—their intent with their costumes was abundantly clear.

This is what probably happened: the women left the party late at night and quite sweaty. That sweat may have made the charcoal look a little bit worse than it originally was. They were probably seen by students who, upon hearing that this allegedly racist party happened, jumped on the opportunity to say they saw some people wearing “blackface.”

By using the term “blackface” to describe how some members of Alpha Phi and SigEp dressed that night, major media outlets have diminished how racist real blackface is. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, blackface is “makeup applied to a performer playing a black person especially in a minstrel show.”

The black caricatures portrayed in these minstrel shows were unflattering to say the least. These shows were meant to lessen black people to sub-human status—the actors being dressed up as if they were playing an animal. Spike Lee’s 2000 film Bamboozled tackles this issue from the perspective of a black television executive.

This is not to say that absolutely no Greek organizations are racist, however. The Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter at the University of Oklahoma was suspended last March after a video surfaced of members performing a chant that included a racial slur against blacks and the phrase, “You can hang him from a tree, but he’ll never sign [a bid] with me.” Additionally, social fraternities and sororities at the University of Alabama were segregated until the turn of the millennium—over 150 years after the first social fraternity made its way to the campus. Even today, many fraternities and sororities are failing to integrate.

As a society, we need to focus our attention to matters of real racism and sexism. White students attending a Kanye West-themed fraternity party is not racist, but institutional racism in the Greek system is indeed alive and well. Universities need to not only encourage, but also require all Greek organizations to integrate immediately. This is 2015—there have been plenty of opportunities to take it slow.

The same goes for the media. It’s easy to focus on stories that will get clicks on a website, but that’s not what journalism and media are about. Campus newspapers—The Lamron included—need to focus on real problems that affect students every day, not just click-bait.