Every January, Americans remember one of our nation’s paramount civil rights activists, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Typically, this holiday is a day of reverence for King’s birthday. However, this year, Arizona State University’s Tau Kappa Epsilon Fraternity decided to celebrate a different way; the brothers hosted a gregarious “MLK Black Party.” Afterwards, a whirlwind of photos posted on Instagram caused a great deal of controversy nation-wide.
CBS 5 Arizona posted a news story with a video, photos, and an article about the event in Tempe. CBS, along with many other online platforms, displayed the offensive and outlandish photos from the event. The Instagram photos that the party-goers posted speak for themselves:
These photos show the ASU socialites dressed in basketball jerseys and flat-brimmed hats, flashing gang signs, posing for photos while slouching, and drinking from watermelons. Also, hashtags on Twitter and Instagram included offensive remarks such as #BlackOutForMLK.
Examining the three Instagram photos circulating around the internet, it is clear that the students were dressing up in stereotypes of African American people. Rev. Jarrett Maupin, a civil rights activist, said that these kinds of stereotypes are “very dangerous especially on a university campus. A cup made out of a watermelon is advanced racism. Dressing up like, quote, ‘black people’ — that requires research and is advanced racism” (Kingkade).
CBS 5 interviewed a few Arizona State students, and they recognized the cultural racism and were equally as bothered as I am by the photos posted on Instagram. After seeing some of the pictures, ASU senior Frank Hogan proclaimed, “This isn’t appropriate at all and you really have no business dressing like this on a day that’s sort of revered for African-Americans” (Argos). Kaajal Koranteng, also a senior at the University, acknowledged, “I think this represents the ignorance [about racism] that still exists today” (Argos). The Instagram photos from this “MLK Black Party” spread like wildfire not only on campus, but all over the internet, and there are many people that see it fit to deem them offensive. The “minimization of racism” idea that many whites believe that race and racism no longer affect minorities’ lives today. The two student’s testimonies CBS reported prove that idea to be false.
Clearly, racism on the internet is a prominent issue. In a recent Huffington Post article, reporter Olivia Cole broadcasted that “[there are] disgusting displays of privilege and racism…on platforms like Facebook and Twitter.” In in my Literary Studies course at Illinois State, I have learned that issues of whiteness and privilege infer that whites have it easiest is society. Ideas of race and social construction also relate to a debate we had in my Literary Studies course; people make these standards and regulations in society to meet our economic and social needs. The way these ASU students exploited Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and dressed up “like black people” is stereotypical and ignorant of African Americans in culture. Nadra Kareem Nittle, an author of articles and essays about race, indicated, “[the] desire to dress up as a generic minority…is a pretty good indicator that you’ve bought into stereotypes about the group in question.” Because these white students dressing up in jerseys and flat-brimmed hats, it implies that they think that all African Americans belong to this “gangster” group or that only black people dress that way and belong to that group.
Dressing up in racist fashions is becoming an epidemic associated with college campuses. Total Frat Move, a college news and entertainment website, posted an article about the event in January. They said:
“Looking back in history, situations like this have never ended well for any chapter. Regardless of the exact theme, if a party carried a racial connotation and that connotation became public through the ways of the internet, it likely carried hefty punishment, because it upset enough people to warrant a backlash…They ALL became national news stories because information and pictures regarding the party became public, via the internet.” (Schaeffer)
Online communities, particularly reader comments, were enraged by the photos and actions of TKE at Arizona State. What baffles me is that anyone is free to give their “two cents” online. Online forums serve as a place for people to vent and express themselves. Sometimes, contributor’s feedback is insightful, but, often, it is just people blabbing on and on about their close-minded and uneducated opinions. On the internet, people are free to post and write whatever they would like without inhibitions. There is nobody policing the internet closely. What is the worst thing that could happen? Often, there are no repercussions for saying something factually wrong. Somebody might write a hasty comment in reply to yours, but in the grand scheme of things, does that really matter? In this case, the reactions of the public do matter.
Online communities and social media outlets, such as Instagram and Twitter, offer a slew of problems regarding privacy and discretion. In their article about this issue, Total Frat Move put it perfectly:
“Ultimately, it seems that people cannot get it through their skulls that the internet is a PUBLIC DOMAIN, and any information in the form of pictures, text, or videos that you or your friends publish onto the web becomes PUBLIC INFORMATION that can be accessed by ANYONE…Anyone in the media that sees it fit can write a story about your hashtagged “#blackoutformlk” Instagram pictures.” (Schaeffer)
Instagram, unless you make your account private to the public, is a very public social networking forum; someone can easily find a user by their name, their handle, or the hashtags that they use. One of the textbooks used in my Literary Studies course, Crossing the Digital Divide by Barbara Monroe, highlights a story about race on the internet and privacy issues. Monroe’s study featured African-American high school students from Detroit, Michigan working online with writing tutors from the University of Michigan. Through email correspondences, Monroe recognized that there were vast social and cultural differences between the two populations. These differences can be attributed to the students’ cultural beliefs about privacy and the idea of membership in a community.
By in large, I am willing to give the students involved with this party the benefit of the doubt; I believe that Arizona State’s Tau Kappa Epsilon Fraternity brothers and their party guests had poor tastes, but I do not know that their explicit intensions of the night was to be racists over Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Perhaps there is more of a colorblind racial ideology going on. In my Literary Studies course, we have discussed that people have racist tendencies; some say that individuals in society cannot help it and that being prejudiced it is a natural consequence of being social. Nevertheless, having a “Black Out for MLK” party is taking things to an unimaginable extreme, and that kind of behavior is completely tasteless and inappropriate.
These photos go beyond highlighting a fraternity and other ASU students’ poor judgment. This is an issue of social justice, and making costumes of a culture or race is far from funny because it only reinforces stereotypes. Arizona State’s Tau Kappa Epsilon Fraternity is drowning in negative headlines right now. Good luck swimming out of this hot water, bros.
Argos, Greg. “ASU Fraternity Suspended after ‘offensive’ MLK Party – CBS 5 – KPHO.” CBS 5. KPHO Broadcasting Corporation, 20 Jan 2014. Web. 02 Mar 2014. <http://www.kpho.com/story/24502600/asu-fraternity-suspended-following-offensive-mlk-party>.
Cmcgee23. “Ballin with the wildermuth wildboyz (and girl) #blackoutformlk #ihaveadream.” Instagram.
Cole, Olivia. “On the Oft-Repeated Lie That Racism on Social Media Isn’t ‘Real’ Racism.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 23 Jan. 2014. Web. 03 Mar. 2014. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/olivia-cole/on-the-oftrepeated-lie-th_b_4575754.html>.
Kingkade, Tyler. “Arizona State University Frat Celebrates MLK Day By Being Extraordinarily Racist (VIDEO).” Huffington Post. 21 Jan 2014. Web. 2 Mar 2014. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/01/21/frat-mlk-day-arizona-state-racist_n_4638224.html?utm_hp_ref=college>.
Monroe, Barbara Jean. “Putting One’s Business on Front Street.” Crossing the Digital Divide: Race, Writing, and Technology in the Classroom. New York: Teachers College, 2004. N. pag. Print.
Nittle, Nadra K. “Dressing Up As Someone From a Different Race for Halloween.” About.com Race Relations. About.com, n.d. Web. 03 Mar. 2014. <http://racerelations.about.com/od/diversitymatters/a/Dressing-Up-As-Someone-From-A-Different-Race-For-Halloween.htm>.
Schaeffer, Ashley. “Arizona State TKE Suspended Again, This Time For Their “MLK Day Black Party”.” Total Frat Move. TotalFratMove.com, 21 Jan 2014. Web. 2 Mar 2014. <http://totalfratmove.com/arizona-state-tke-suspended-again-this-time-for-their-mlk-day-black-party/>.
Sonenshein, Julia. “ASU Fraternity Celebrates Martin Luther King, Jr. Day With Mind Bogglingly Racist Party.” The Gloss. TheGloss.com, 21 Jan 2014. Web. 02 Mar 2014. <http://www.thegloss.com/2014/01/21/culture/racist-tau-kappa-epsilon-martin-luther-king-jr-party-asu/>.
Tjlindahl. “Happy MLK day homies… #hood @travisperkins.” Instagram.