After Kappa Sigma fraternity suspended its chapter at Duke University following a racially insensitive Asian-themed rager — "Herro Nice Duke Peopre," the brothers wrote in the email invite — stories of other recent questionably themed gatherings started to circulate around campus. Highlights included a predominately white fraternity that allegedly hosted a BET (as in Black Entertainment Television) party, and a Sigma Nu pregame gathering called "Creepy Guys and Cutie Pies" which some students referred to as "Juveniles and Pedophiles."
All of these events took place within the first few weeks of 2013. Why are privileged undergraduates at elite colleges unable to resist the lure of "subversive" theme parties even though the potential repercussions could last a Googled lifetime? We spoke with Duke students both inside and outside the Greek system to find out.
Duke is hardly the only prestigious college where fraternities hold events with themes such as "Dress to get Lei'd", "Presidents and Interns", and "Give It to Me, Daddy, I Want It." (Here's an extensive list of dubious Duke frat party themes.) But given that the Duke parties have received so much media attention, unfair or otherwise, it's a little bizarre that students would keep risking their charters and future job prospects for the chance to push the limits of social acceptability and hit on girls dressed as "Pocahotness."
These photos, which are admittedly tame by collegiate standards, are from the aforementioned "Creepy Guys and Cutie Pies" gathering at Sigma Nu, one of Duke's most exalted fraternities. "Oh, you mean the pedo party," said multiple Duke students when I asked them if they had heard about it. I spoke at length with a Sigma Nu sophomore who was adamant that the gathering was never meant to be called "Pedophiles and Juveniles," but not because that wouldn't be funny; because it would be a majorly dumb move. "Sigma Nu is pretty renowned and known as the smartest fraternity," he said when I asked him why he thought frat guys loved offensive themed parties. "You're asking the wrong guy at the wrong frat. Find one that isn't as certain about its values."
But does "Creepy Guys and Cutie Pies" really scream "values," or is that pushing it? "Not every party we throw is going to be Kafka themed or Galileo themed," he said. "We like to be a little more creative than sitting around and watching Milton Friedman videos or The Wizard of Oz. If the worst party we've ever thrown is 'Creepy Guys and Cutie Pies,' we should be hailed as one of the good fraternities."
Ok then. Still, why take the risk that you'll end up on, say, a Gawker Media blog dressed as a pedophile or sumo wrestler? Steve, a junior who helped organize protests against Kappa Sigma's Asia rager, said he thinks it's clear when you consider what the function of a frat party actually is. "Fraternity men need women to fuck—if at all in order to fulfill the strict codes of masculinity which they reproduce (e.g., taking whatever you want whenever you want it)—and they need alcohol to create an environment in which all that is possible.," he wrote in an email. "But your party theme can't just be 'Powerful Men and Submissive Women' (though honestly some party themes come disturbingly close), and so other powerful-powerless relationships become necessary." He noted that it seems like innocent fun because it's reminiscent of children playing dress-up.
Tara, a senior who described herself as a former sorority member who was once a "guiltless attendee [at the] World Olympics party and clothing lender for Pocohotness," concurred and told me that it's hard for freshman to resist the opportunity to become part of such an ingrained culture. "All it takes is accepting an invitation," she said. "I know I have and thought no more about it than finding a cute costume, asking roommates from other ethnicities to borrow clothes, taking my best guess at what shade of eye shadow completes the look."
Tara said she thought Duke undergraduates were drawn to racist and sexist themed parties because the concept of breaking social rules intrigues kids who are book-smart but haven't experienced real struggles; i.e., your stereotypical Duke student. "No matter where we come from, a Montessori school in Portland or small prep school in Virginia, we all have a background in the politically correct," she said. "Dressing up in a ludicrous summation of an entire people and culture just seems like another crazy risk, getting laughs from your peers for creativity or absurdity. It is laced with the subversive, your parents wouldn't approve, you wouldn't put it on your resume, but for awhile 'but it's college!' is enough of an excuse for a lot of questionable behavior."
How many more cringe-inducing Facebook photos do we have to gawk at before college kids stop slipping the word "slut" into every invite and donning blackface for "Ghetto Fabulous" parties? Steve isn't too optimistic; he said he doesn't think racist and sexist party themes go out of vogue after scandals like these because the resounding message merely becomes: "Go forth, my brothers! Find new ways to get booze and women, and this time, don't offend anybody!"
The underlying assumptions of college social life are not questioned," he said. "The lesson is simply that we must become nice conquerors of women" — and minorities — "if we want to continue getting away with it."
Yi Zhu, a senior, said he thinks frats will continue to throw insensitive parties because "even intelligent and well-educated students lack the real life exposure to the hardships and pain that stigmatization brings."
"This kind of hardship is something people can't understand even if he or she belongs to the group being marginalized, unless that person lived through it," he said. Unfortunately, that's an issue that doesn't stay on campus after graduation day.