Last Tuesday, on the 6th of October, the University of California Los Angeles’ Sigma Phi Epsilon and Alpha Phi Greek societies hosted a social event which would prove to upset and anger many of their fellow students and bring national attention to the decisions made by their communities.
Invitees to the ‘Kanye Western’ party, hosted at UCLA’s Sigma Phi Epsilon house, were encouraged to attend dressed up as celebrity couple Kanye West and Kim Kardashian. What was assumed to be an innocent-enough party theme (at least in the minds of the people throwing and attending the event) got pretty bad pretty fast.
Girls showed up wearing pads on their backsides to imitate Kim’s large butt (a trait that also aligns with our cultural understandings of Black women in general), while other individuals donned gold chains, baggy pants and exposed boxer shorts, all physical characteristics commonly associated with Black rap and hip-hop artists. Media surrounding the event fixated on a group of girls dressed as miners (a play on Kanye’s song ‘Gold Digger’) who had chosen to smear black coal on their faces, an act that many understood to be a form of Blackface.
Residents of UCLA’s Afrikan Diaspora Studies community were the first to notice the problematic party after noticing students dressed in Blackface leaving the SigEp house Tuesday night. When these residents attempted to snap photos of the event, their efforts were stopped by fraternity members.
Within the hour, other Black students on campus, some belonging to the Afrikan Student Union, had congregated across the street from the SigEp house, to voice their distaste for the party. Although no pictures were snapped in this specific instance, these students made claims of party-goers dressed in what most consider ‘traditional Blackface’, where a white individual wears full brown/Black face and body makeup in an attempt to imitate Blackness. Enraged by the actions of these Greek societies, several of UCLA’s Black student groups began blasting the story on social media with the use of the hashtags #BlackBruins and #BlackBruinsMatter. SigEp and Alpha Phi were suspended from hosting social activities while an investigation of the incident is being held.
The Afrikan Student Union’s vocal protestation of the fraternity and sorority’s joint effort made the story blow up, not only within the UC system and the state of California, but throughout the nation. Interested parties generally fell into two camps regarding the subject: either they felt the issues people had with the party were justified and valid, or they thought people who were upset were being entirely too ‘politically correct’ and that SigEp and Alpha Phi should get off scot-free.
The fact that there is a lack of concrete proof (i.e. photos) of individuals in ‘traditional Blackface’ is the reason why many people feel that the party was inconsequential; what needs to be understood in this situation is that there are dimensions to the perpetration of Blackface, that the definition of the act is not set in stone, but is just as fluid as the social contexts in which it exists.
In traditional contexts, Blackface minstrelsy involved white actors putting on brown/Black makeup and performing either a sketch or a song which was meant to perpetuate toxic stereotypes and ideas of Black people; this art form was popular in the Jim Crow era, where tensions regarding American race relations were running particularly high. In our current context, we must take into account our societal understandings of Black people, bodies and culture; they are based mostly on the Black people we see in media, and primarily on hip-hop and rap culture. By that end, when a non-Black individual chooses to dress in the clothing generally associated with Black artists, and to use language created and popularized by Black people, we must understand that that person is perpetrating Blackface in a modern context.
What is even more frustrating about this situation is that Kanye West doesn’t even dress in the way people were imitating him; throughout his career, Kanye has, for the most part, opted for fitted suits and couture looks in both his performance attire and personal dress. This apparent lack of attention to Kanye’s actual manner of dress only clarifies that the ‘Kanye Western’ party goers had anything but the rapper in mind when dressing for this party.
Instances of racism in both Greek communities and universities at large are all too commonplace; this week it’s UCLA with a Blackface scandal, but two years ago it was our own Lambda Theta Delta perpetrating Blackface under a similar guise (an individual dressed as rapper Jay-Z).
As college students, we are the next generation of leaders in the world’s workforces and institutions. Therefore, we must be accountable for our actions and not only point out injustice when we see it, but support and encourage exploited populations in our day-to-day activities and interactions. We have an obligation to lift up our Black friends and peers, and to listen and understand and empathize with them. Only by being sincere and intentional with our support will Black students, faculty and members of the university community feel comfortable and valued in the landscape of higher education.
Cheyda Arhamsadr is a fourth-year public health policy major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.