PENN: Allegedly Racist Mixer Thrown, Messy Public “Dialogue” Ensues

Over the weekend, UPenn fraternity Beta Theta Pi and sorority Chi Omega hosted a mixer in which people presumably got drunk, took pictures of themselves, and wore clothes that they sure as hell wouldn’t wear to class. But this time around, overly cropped tops weren’t the issue: the partygoers sported fake knuckle tattoos, “thug” insignias, baggy hoodies and sweatpants, and flipped-back hats. And according to student Ernest Owens, P ’14, the mixer’s theme was “gangsta,” and it was “offensive, disrespectful, racially charged, out of line, and straight up buffoonish.”

On his personal blog, Owens addresses an open letter to Beta Theta Pi and Chi Omega, decrying their actions and calling for formal apologies. He writes that the costumes (which can be seen on the blog post), “perpetuate negative stereotypes [and]…mock the lifestyles” of the West Philadelphia community–a neighborhood the socioeconomic opposite of Penn’s environment, and one that most Penn students only encounter while tutoring West Philly children. Expanding on his original statements, Owens believes that “the event was thrown out of purposeful inconsideration.” His tipster, he says, was a Chi Omega member who “was disgruntled that they proceeded with the mixer…members within the sorority had told me that they told their executive leaders that it was disrespectful and inappropriate. [The tipster] sent me the pictures and details that led to me posting the story.”

Were there “many students on campus who [were] offended and enraged” by the mixer, as Owens claims? Reports are mixed. The Daily Pennsylvanian published a six-author opinion piece calling for more campus dialogue on racial issues following the party, which apparently followed “the general trend of [Penn] parties that serve to culturally objectify and vilify certain groups on campus.” The article also cites the cancelled “Cinco de Febrero” party hosted by the track and field team in its argument “to start a conversation.”

Other Penn students, however, say that there has been little uproar, largely because of public dislike of Owens (a sentiment that is apparent in the comments on the DP piece)–and likely because these potentially offensive, politically incorrect Greek life parties happen at Penn about every other week. When it comes to the guiltiness of the mixer itself, the article’s comments  range nearly every opinion, from dismissing any potential racial issues as “oversensitive” to encouraging “target[ing] this issue as a campus-wide problem.”

Maria Guadagnino, P ’15 and the president of Chi Omega, shared to IvyGate only that “chapter leadership is aware of the matter and we are handling it privately and internally with our members” when reached for comment.  Another Chi Omega sister, however, explains that “the theme of the mixer was 90s hip hop, not gangsta.”

Taylor Hosking, P ’17 and also a Chi Omega sister, reiterated to Owens that the theme of the party was “90s hip hop”, sending him a Facebook message to defend the sorority and criticize his public attacks on the groups. Owens responded by posting her message as his Facebook status, proving that he has no problem sharing the words of other people as well as his own. The exchange shows less than positive feelings on both sides:

Owens’ Facebook status:

Taylor Hosking, you just called me an “attention whore” and I will show you how attention whores spread the attention to another. Please don’t you ever message me again, here is what you told me:
“The theme of the party was supposed to be 90s hiphop, maybe gangsta was attached to it in the description because that’s a classic word 90s rappers used to describe themselves at the time. Everyone loves 90s rappers, the way they dress, their swag, no nonsense attitudes, the way they’ll defend where they come from till they die and try to spread love the Brooklyn way. We loved them then; we love them now. Most people would love to dress up like them and there’s a thrill of trying to be something that you’re not but that you respect, admire and think is cool. That’s why this is one of the most popular party themes at college, a theme that black sororities and fraternities love too. Maybe the majority of the people at that party don’t know what it’s like to live a day in the life of public enemy or Pac but we know what it’s like to listen to what they wanted to tell us and vibe and let go. Furthermore, you’re creating an interpretation of the Chi O girls that couldn’t be further from the truth. I’m a strong black woman who chose to be a part of their sister hood this year because they were some of the most genuine people I had met on this campus. Beautiful on the inside, with interesting things to say, respect to give to others, and ready to have a good time/ enjoy one another’s company. Call me an uncle tom if you want but if you knew me you’d know I’m one of the most down girls around and I don’t stand for any type of racial discrimination or insensitivity. I get why you would think it’s wrong at first, but it’s really not like that. Publicly shaming specific individuals that you don’t know is not the way to go about genuine race conversation. I think you’re an attention whore and I didn’t even have to be at this school for more than a year to know that the majority of campus thinks that too.”

Not all his social media interactions with Chi O members have been accusatory, though. After publicly demanding an apology, Owens publicly refused one when it came from Guadagnino. According to the text from an Imgur page, a February 16th Facebook status from Owens reads, “The President of CHI O reached me and send me this. Beyond her apology and reaching out to talk she asked me to remove the photo and be fair…better question “fair” in what sense…if they don’t feel they did anything wrong…shouldn’t they not be disappointed if they rep “West Philadelphia” as “gangsters.” And yeah, I will take down the post soon…after a shower and a brunch, and maybe a nap….QUESTION: should I have correspondence with her?”

Owens confirmed to IvyGate on February 18th that he had “received no formal apology from both parties,” but failed to mention this exchange.

Nearly every step of the way, Owens has made this issue a public one, observed by the entire Penn campus rather than conducted between the relevant parties. It’s definitely successful in opening up some semblance of dialogue, but also has the uncomfortable touch of cyber-bullying.

Attempts to reach Beta Theta Pi–who have been getting a fraction of the social media backlash that Chi Omega has received–for comment were unsuccessful. In the days since the February 15th mixer, Owens has started a petition for the Penn Office of Student Affairs to investigate the actions of the mixer; the petition has 116 supporters as of February 21st.

So, media commentary aside, was the mixer “racially insensitive and ignorant”? Or an homage to Fresh Prince that just got photographed from the wrong angle and became the face of a much larger issue at Penn? There’s no question that Penn can be elitist racially, economically, socially–much like every Ivy. It’s just a question of how far political correctness goes in Philadelphia versus New York, or Boston, or Jersey. Is the “gangsta/90s hip hop” mixer a symptom of that internal racial and class problem, or a choice of theme that just landed too close to that pit and got swallowed up in it?