White students criticized for dressing up in gangsta gear.
Map of Max Palevsky Residential Commons at the University of Chicago's Hyde Park campus
Photo: University of Chicago
The "ghetto" party at the University of Chicago dorm last month in which students wore sideways baseball caps, sagged jeans and gold chains and listened to 50 Cent and Nelly while sipping from beer bottles wrapped in brown paper bags might have escaped attention if only for one factor: All the attendees were white.
The 20 or so students who organized and attended the "straight thuggin' " party at the university on the south side of Chicago have set off a campus debate about race relations at the school, whose undergrad population is around 4 percent black.
The flap over the party led the university's president, Don Randel, to call for an open meeting on Tuesday to discuss the campus atmosphere for minority students and staff and seek suggestions from faculty on how to create programs about the issues raised by the incident. The school, which is surrounded by largely poor and minority neighborhoods, is worried that the party could reinforce the feelings of isolation minority students already feel on campus and undermine the outreach to the local community.
"The issues at stake ... are larger than this one distressing episode and raise questions about the campus climate for minority students, faculty and staff," Randel and other administrators wrote in a letter e-mailed to students last week. The letter called the theme of the October 14 party — also known as a "ghetto" party — offensive and said it "parodied racial stereotypes based on assumptions about economically disadvantaged members of society."
The immediate reaction to the party set off a flurry of e-mails and Web postings among students and a "tremendous" outcry from students of color that focused less on the clothing than on the appropriation of the terms "ghetto" and "thuggin'," according to the university's vice president and dean of students, Stephen Klass. "The issue was the blanket use of these terms as equaling black society in America in a demeaning way," Klass said. "The students who held the party were horrified that it was perceived this way, but for us the party is one thing. As much as we were dismayed, the larger issue is that a place like this is all about intellectual diversity and freedom of speech, but when things like this happen people feel marginalized and it affects our ability to have open and free discourse."
The party — at which some students drank beer, a violation of university policy — was registered with the resident advisors for the May House suite in the Max Palevsky dorm, but its theme was not. Klass said if the theme had been known, the party would not have been authorized. It was the second in a series of themed parties at May House, with the first celebrating the '80s and a third one that would have been '90s-themed.
Though one of the party's hosts denied that the term "ghetto" was ever used to describe the event, according to the Chicago Tribune, in the days before the party, some students put on their costumes to take pictures publicizing it and stopped the dorm's only black student to ask his opinion.
"They said, 'We are taking pictures for our "ghetto" party,' " sophomore Eve Ewing told the paper. "At that point they were using the word 'ghetto.' I don't know at what point the moniker changed. When they initially presented it, they did use that term."
A half dozen black students tried to check out the party but arrived too late. Freshman Galen Simmons told them that they "would have been the most thuggin' people there," Simmons, a New York native, told the Tribune, adding that he intended it as a compliment. "It was meant to say that they had appropriate clothes for the theme of the party ... most of us were ignorant about how our comments or actions might be taken."
Simmons' solution to the flap was a suggestion that the university do a better job of teaching new students about racial tensions on campus and in the community. A university spokesperson could not be reached for comment at press time.
Regardless of intent, a number of black students were offended by the party and some pictures of the event that were briefly posted on a Web site. "I was just totally flabbergasted," sophomore Kristiana Colon of Chicago told the Tribune. Of 4,667 undergraduates enrolled at the school, only 192 are black. "If that is what they think hip-hop looks like or black people look like, that is a serious problem."
Confidentiality rules prevented Klass from commenting on whether the students faced any disciplinary action, but a university official told the Tribune that they did not. One of the party's hosts wrote a letter in the school newspaper apologizing for the incident.
Klass said Tuesday's meeting is meant to provide a structured venue where the issues raised by the party can be discussed and he's hoping some of the students involved will be willing to talk. "It's about figuring out what it takes to make this a place where you feel supported and you can reach your potential as a scholar," Klass said.
Posted by MK Magazine at November 7, 2005 07:07 AM