Last Thursday night, ten students held a sign reading “THIS IS NOT ‘Fiji’ THIS IS RACIST” at the ARC roundabout in order to protest FIJI Islander, a themed party hosted by the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity.
“It’s infringing on my identity,” Save Gasaiwai, a third-year political science major who identifies as an indigenous Fijian, said. Prior to the protest, Gasaiwai reached out to Justin Huang, Phi Gamma Delta’s president, requesting that the party’s name be changed.
“I also asked them to change the racist nature of their event where people come out and wear traditional Fijian attire that holds a lot of endemic cultural significance to us Fiji islanders,” Gasaiwai said.
While waiting for the busses to shuttle them to the venue in Santa Ana, partygoers, many wearing leis, were reserved regarding the protest. Most declined to comment whether they thought the party’s theme was racist or not.
As Phi Gamma Delta members approached the roundabout with the type of clothing Gasaiwai requested not to be worn, Huang worked to correct his fraternity’s appearance.
One attendee, who insisted his name was Dan Aldrich, had to have his fake-grass leg flounces removed by Huang before approaching the bus. When asked about the flounces, which were an imitation of Fijian “vesa” normally made from vau leaves, worn during traditional ceremonies, he denied having them, despite the fake grass spilling out of his front pocket. Instead, he took the opportunity to say that the fraternity has been FIJI for the last 160 years.
According to Jese Sikivou, a member of the Fiji Native and Tribal Congress, the earliest Fijian history traces back to approximately 1500 BC.
Sergio Otero, Phi Gamma Delta member and prospective partygoer, was turned away by Huang for wearing nothing much besides a vau skirt, arm and leg flounces, as well as a lei.
“The theme of the party is Hawaiian,” Shane Aronson, a member of the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity, said. Despite this, Aronson said that the party’s theme doesn’t represent any cultures. “It’s more of a college-themed party.”
Although both are part of the Polynesian region in the Pacific Ocean, Fiji is over 3,000 miles from Hawaii. While Hawaii represents the northernmost island in Polynesia, Fiji inhabits an overlap region between Polynesia and Melanesia to the west. In the same manner, Fijian culture is a combination of both Polynesian and Melanesian practices.
Despite a degree of overlap, Fijian and Hawaiian cultures are distinct according to Gasaiwai. This point was missed by the fraternity as well as partygoers, who conflated distinct cultural attires under the homogenous islander theme.
A number of partygoers were seen leaving the event still wearing Fijian vau items, despite Gasaiwai’s request to Huang the day before to prevent such attire.
“Oh, it has nothing to do with Fiji. FIJI is just our name,” Aronson said, referring to the colloquial shortening of the fraternity’s Greek “phi” and “gamma” letters, a custom adopted by the national fraternity in 1894.
Aronson said he had not been approached by anyone who was concerned about the appropriative nature of the fraternity’s name and event. He did mention, however, that he had recently heard about a cultural group on campus who found a party’s theme offensive, but had no idea it concerned his fraternity. When asked if he thought his fraternity should address the problematic nature of their name, Aronson was unable to answer.
“It’s not my place to say,” maintaining that he was only trying to entertain fellow students.
Huang explained the change of the event’s subtitle from “Shipfaced” to “Shipwrecked” as prudent and an exercise in self-restraint, saying that the original title toed the line in portraying the Greek community with a negative stereotype. As for the FIJI Islander name, however, Huang said that his fraternity is still in the process of engaging in dialogue to find the most meaningful way to proceed.
For Gasaiwai, Huang’s response is not enough, despite trying to resolve this with Huang, he still saw traditional Fijian attire being appropriated.
“I think it’s superficial and disingenuous because if he really wanted to have a meaningful dialogue, he would have scheduled one before the event since I notified him way beforehand of its racist nature.”