White students at Tarleton State University in Texas hold a party in which they dress in gang gear and drink malt liquor from paper bags. A white Clemson University student attends a bash in blackface over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend. A fraternity at Johns Hopkins University invites partygoers to wear “bling bling” grills, or shiny metal caps on their teeth.
From Connecticut to Colorado, “gangsta” theme parties thrown by whites are drawing the ire of college officials and heated complaints from black and white students who say the antics conjure the worst racial stereotypes.
University officials, the NAACP and others have condemned the parties as insulting and inexcusable under any circumstances. At the same time, some black academics said they were not surprised, given the popularity of rap music among inner-city blacks and well-to-do suburban whites alike.
The white students, they said, were mimicking the kind of outlaw posturing that blacks themselves engage in in rap videos. They suggest the white students ended up crossing the same line that says it is OK for blacks to call each other “nigger,” but not all right for whites to do it.
Whites often don’t realize their actions are offensive because they are imitating behavior celebrated in music and seen on television, said Venise Berry, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Iowa who has researched rap music and popular culture.
“The segment of rap music that is glamorized and popularized by the media is gangsta rap,” said Berry, who is black. “It has become an image that is normalized in our society. That to me explains clearly why they don’t see it as wrong.”
Fake guns at 'Bullets and Bubbly'
At an off-campus “Bullets and Bubbly” party thrown by University of Connecticut School of Law students in January, pictures showed students wearing baggy jeans, puffy jackets and holding fake machine guns.
The University of Colorado’s Ski and Snowboard Club advertised a “gangsta party” in September, with fliers featuring rappers and fake bullet holes. The theme was dropped after complaints, but some students, who didn’t get the message, showed up in gangsta garb, hoping to win prizes.
Often such parties go unnoticed outside campuses until students post pictures on Facebook.com and other Web sites. That’s how images of the Clemson party surfaced this week. One student wore blackface; another white student put padding in her pants to make her rear end look bigger.
Harold Hughes, a black fraternity member at Clemson whose frat brothers attended the party, said white students “see this on MTV and BET they think it’s cool to portray hip hop culture.” Hughes said he found it especially offensive that the party was held over a holiday created to honor the slain civil rights leader.
Many white Clemson students said they did not believe the party was held to intentionally offend blacks, and after news of the party reached beyond the campus, organizers issued an unsigned letter of apology.
Still, school officials are investigating, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People said the party was not harmless fun.
“We once lynched African-Americans as good fun and humor,” said Lonnie Randolph, president of the South Carolina chapter of the NAACP.
Clemson President James Barker said he was “appalled, angered and disappointed” by the party.
“If you don’t understand why this is harmful to the community, then you need to start asking questions and learn,” Kurt Strasser, the interim dean of the UConn School of Law, told faculty, staff and students at a meeting last week to discuss the party there.
Crossing the line
One hip hop insider, Chris Conners, programming director at Columbia radio station WHXT HOT 103.9, said he has no problem with whites imitating certain aspects of black culture — driving cars with flashy rims, for example. But he said students who put on blackface or padded their rear ends crossed the line.
“They weren’t really celebrating hip hop culture. They were making fun of African Americans, and that’s what really concerns me,” he said.’
James Johnson, a black psychology professor at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington who has researched racial attitudes and teaches a seminar on race and prejudice, said he is more discouraged by the rap performers who perpetuate stereotypes than by the “clueless kids” who imitate them.
“In the civil rights movement, you didn’t have blacks who called themselves ‘niggers’ and who called their women ‘bitches’ and ‘whores’ and who glorified being violent and being thugs,” he said. “Now these white kids are kind of confused.”
These incidents come at a time racial tolerance on college campuses is perceived to be steadily improving. But the truth may be more complicated.
A University of Dayton sociologist who analyzed journals kept by 626 white college students found the students behaved substantially differently when they were in the company of other whites than when they were with other races.
Part of the culture?
When the students, who were asked to record their interactions with other people, were alone with other white students, racial stereotypes and racist language were surprisingly common, researcher Leslie Picca found. One student reported hearing the “n-word” among white students 27 times in a single day.
The results suggest white students have little sense of shame about racial insults and stereotyping and treat them as simply a part of the culture.
“This is a new generation who grew up watching ‘The Cosby Show,”’ Picca said. “They have the belief that racism isn’t a problem anymore so the words they use and the jokes they tell aren’t racist.”
Picca said she found it “heartbreaking” to see so many well-educated students perpetuating the stereotypes.