Apr 24 2012

Northwestern: Even More Racist than We Thought

Northwestern’s not known for being an oasis of tolerance. (Examples: here, here, and here.)

But a few members of our student body have decided to sink this school to a new low this past weekend by hosting a party/drinking game called the “Beer Olympics.” A student who saw the event described it this way:

[W]hat I saw Saturday afternoon was really just the “Racist Olympics.” In this backyard were at least 50 kids dressed up as some particular ethnic group or nationality. There were 6 teams: Canada, Ireland, Bangladesh, South Africa, Uganda, and Navajo Nation. All teams but Canada and Ireland signified via horribly racist and offensive mock-ups of these cultures. The noise I had heard came from the “Navajo Nation,” although almost every student in this yard participated in the “Indian call.” Moreover, these students are dressed up in headdresses, leather vests and other stereotypical indigenous garb.

Uganda was represented by students wearing tribalized Kony 2012 shirts. Students representing South Africa seemed to take a much simpler approach. In my presence, a passerby asked why the group chose to wear white t-shirts and black jeans. The response: “We’re South Africa! White on top, black on bottom!” Finally, the Bangladesh group simply dressed themselves in beads and painted red dots on their foreheads (the overwhelming majority of the population in Bengaldesh aren’t Hindi, but Muslim). These chants, the minstrelsy aimed at the expense of the dignity of non-Europeans and the sheer ecstasy of the partiers was sickening and traumatizing.

Apparently the group responsible for this has since released a “statement,” which you can read in the letter that I linked to.

Now, first of all. In case there’s any confusion, this is racist. If you don’t know why, here are some resources.

Second, I wish someone could explain to me this: why? Why do this? We all know college students need no excuse to get drunk, and there’s no reason why drinking games would be any less fun without racism involved.

Third, I feel that the Northwestern community needs to know which group was responsible for this. (Several people I’ve been discussing this with on Facebook have an idea of which group it might be, based on the apparent location of the photos and past traditions, but I won’t accidentally libel anybody.) It’s great that they’ve released a statement and have had “meetings” or whatever it is they’ve had, but ultimately, students who would like to avoid groups that hold big racist drinking games should probably be able to do so. (Yup, it’s the ski team.)

Fourth, when people are being drunk and doing shitty things, I often hear the argument that “Yeah well they’re drunk, what do you expect.” Okay, no. Once you’re an adult, you’re responsible for your actions–all of them–regardless of how much you’ve had to drink. This means that you need to either learn how to behave like a decent human being even if you’ve been drinking, or you need to stop drinking.

Finally, before anybody even goes there, yes, this is free speech. All free speech is legal. Not all free speech contributes anything to our society, and some of it actively harms that society. Let’s stop excusing terrible behavior simply because it happens to be legal.

Northwestern’s administration has been holding all sorts of “forums” on racial issues and proposing various “diversity initiatives,” but honestly, I don’t think any of it’s going to help. (Granted, that isn’t an excuse to just do nothing.) No matter how tolerant Northwestern’s environment is, it won’t undo 18 years of living in a society that perpetuates the stereotypes that these students poked fun at, and–even more insidiously–that teaches us that perpetuating these stereotypes is okay.

Unlearning these lessons is much harder than going to a required orientation program about diversity. After the infamous Northwestern blackface incident of 2009, Josh Feigelson, who used to be a rabbi here, wrote this:

I have long imagined a university in which every junior takes a seminar with a handful of others, drawn from diverse backgrounds, and whose common project is to learn to tell their own story and listen to the stories of others. What would it look like for Northwestern, or for other self-proclaimed secular universities, to actually enact the value of diversity–knowledge of oneself and others in a context of community–in not only its approach to student affairs, but into the heart of the curriculum itself?

I don’t know what that would look like. But I’d really like to know. I hope that Northwestern students, staff, and faculty keep talking about it and trying to imagine it. We shouldn’t abandon it just because it’s hard.


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  1. 1

    This doesn’t even make sense. I can think of absolutely no reason to do such a thing O.o

  2. 2

    While I agree that this is an absolutely tasteless display of racism, I do take issue with how many people are willing to limit free speech. Yes, not all free speech contributes to society, but the fact of the matter is, we have to be willing to take the good with the bad. We can’t pick and choose what to accept as free speech and censor other things; that sets a horribly dangerous precedent and grounds for abuse. As much as I despise racism, I don’t think the university should be allowed to limit free speech in circumstances such as these.

    1. 2.1

      How was anybody’s “Free Speech” limited in any way by the university? The linked article stated that the student group made a statement apologizing for their actions and that they had been meeting with campus leaders to discuss the incident. In fact, nothing was censored except for the student group’s identity (to protect the ignorant).

      Miriam, you mistakenly decided to mention “Free Speech” in your blog post, and in doing so you managed to summon this CLASSIC example of a Free-Speech-Troll response. I suggest that this comment thread is locked or deleted because nothing about the incident nor the follow-up has had anything remotely to do with legitimate issues of free speech.

      1. 2.1.1
        Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

        Well, I mentioned free speech because it always comes up in these discussions anyway. And since I was making the point, however indirectly, that such “speech” shouldn’t be allowed under university policy, it’s a relevant conversation to have.

        The truth is that, unlike the United States government, private institutions are free to choose their own purpose. Their purpose is not to protect the free speech of their students, but to educate those students and create an environment in which education is possible. An environment in which our students of color feel unsafe and unwelcome is not such an environment.

        Now, there is obviously a line to be crossed. I don’t think the university should outlaw calling someone a jerk. But speech and actions that selectively harm certain racial/ethnic groups in such an egregious way as this should, I think, be banned.


          Don’t feed the trolls

  3. 3

    Don’t mishear me, I think this is very wrong. I’m pretty disgusted by it. But I wonder if it’s a misuse of the word “racism”. Race is generally defined by physical characteristics, and racism is the belief that certain characteristics apply to all people who have those characteristics. Racism is inherently wrong, because the way people look has no bearing on who they are.
    However, the students here described seem to be focusing not on race, but on culture. A very crude and offensive definition of cultures, but, at least in most of the cases, culture nonetheless. Now, culture is different from race because cultures are actually different from each other by definition. So it is not inherently wrong to assume that a person of a different culture from your own will have certain differences from you. That said, it is inherently wrong to assume that your culture is the superior one and to mock other cultures, which seems to be what was being practiced here.
    This may seem like petty semantics, and perhaps it is, but a part of me wonders if more education on how we view and talk about other cultures would be beneficial to our society. I think maybe beginning by separating it from racism would be a good start to that process.

  4. 4
    Spanish Prof

    “I have long imagined a university in which every junior takes a seminar with a handful of others, drawn from diverse backgrounds, and whose common project is to learn to tell their own story and listen to the stories of others. What would it look like for Northwestern, or for other self-proclaimed secular universities, to actually enact the value of diversity–knowledge of oneself and others in a context of community–in not only its approach to student affairs, but into the heart of the curriculum itself?”

    My university has something like this, and as far as I know, it’s a colossal waste of time. I don’t blame the students, but the professors and the “feel-good” way it is taught. And another problem (which my university has) is that to begin with, you’d have to have a student population that is diverse enough. You won’t find it in my neck of the woods. I don’t know about Northwestern.

    1. 4.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      That’s really unfortunate. But I do think that this only shows us how NOT to teach diversity, rather than that diversity shouldn’t be taught at all. Those classes should emphatically NOT be feel-good classes. They should make people uncomfortable. But they should also inspire great discussions and make new friendships.

      1. 4.1.1
        Spanish Prof

        I agree that it should be taught. But they manage to annoy me even when they are not trying to. The “make people uncomfortable” part is how the United States oppresses other nations. The only way they think other cultures are worth studying is in very folkloric ways.

  5. 5
    Team Oyeniyi

    Great article, Miriam. I know, I am terribly absent lately, but life is so hectic. My apologies.

    This really is a terrific article!

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