by Jordan Green
A white fraternity party in which guests were allegedly encouraged to dress as black people aggravates grievances among students of color about unequal policing of parties.
A party invitation last month from a white fraternity at Wake Forest University in which guests were allegedly encouraged to come dressed as black people has created discord on the campus, deepening frustration among some students and staff of color who see a pattern of hostility and unequal treatment.
University officials learned about the planned event through a bias-incident report filed last month by Residential Advisor Brittany Salaam.
“It came to my attention today that the brothers of Kappa Alpha Order are hosting their annual ‘dress like a black person’ party downtown tonight,” Salaam wrote in a Sept. 5 email obtained by Triad City Beat. “I remember this event taking place last year, and the fact that it is being done again is quite disturbing.”
Salaam declined to comment for this story, citing university policies with respect to her job on campus.
Joe Leduc, a senior political science major who is of Filipino heritage, said that African-American residential advisors were asked by their white advisees whether they were dressed “black enough” and whether could borrow their clothes for the party.
Salaam said in her email that she overheard underage freshman planning to attend the party on Sept. 5 make comments like, “We should ask a black person how to dress,” and “I know how to dress for this; I’m sooooo ghetto.”
Leduc said the invitation worded the event as a “rap music video” party, adding, “The way it’s actually spoken on campus is ‘dress like a black person.’ The students attending will wear stereotypical clothing that students on campus don’t wear that mimic certain stylistic fashion choices in music videos.”
LB Snipes, an African-American student from Charlotte, said he was hurt by the way white students caricatured black people in their costuming for the party, adding that he wondered how they would feel about a party in which guests were encouraged to “dress white.”
“I don’t dress like most African Americans are portrayed in the media,” Snipes said. “I try to keep it very classy. Most of my friends dress in similar ways. They don’t dress very inappropriately. Why do we have certain looks that have to be associated with us as African Americans?”
Reid Nickle, the top-ranking officer for the Kappa Alpha Order chapter at Wake Forest, referred questions about the party to the fraternity’s national office in Lexington, Va. Jesse S. Lyons, a national spokesperson for the fraternity, said in a prepared statement that the party had been canceled, adding that chapter student leaders have worked with national staff and others to address the “situation,” and that “collaborative efforts” had been made among members and others in the campus community “to apply lessons learned to address any future situations.”
Katie Neal, executive director of news and communications at Wake Forest, also said the party had been canceled, echoing Lyons’ assertion. She repeated Lyons’ assertion that the party had been canceled, adding that chapter fraternity leaders discussed the incident with university officials and other students, along with fraternity alumni and advisors.
But Leduc and Snipes said that while the party was publicly canceled, it was later reorganized and held at a different location. Both said they saw references to the party among fellow students on social media after the fact. Neal, the university’s spokesperson, insisted that that party did not take place when confronted with the students’ statements.
In any event, the aftermath has roiled the student body and faculty, while exacerbating racial tensions on campus dating back to at least January.
Provost Rogan Kersh wrote to faculty colleagues in a Sept. 25 email: “As I know many of you are aware, our students have been grappling with complex issues regarding difference, and particularly race, in recent days. Much divisive commentary has appeared on social media, and you may have noticed chalked messages and flyers on Manchester Plaza. Some students are deeply troubled by these events, and may even feel unsafe.”
Leduc said on the night of the party and the next day, a backlash erupted on YikYak, a social media app similar to Twitter that allows users to post anonymously and see what others are posting within a 10-mile radius.
“People were saying, ‘The only people who cause racism to happen are the people who complain about racism,’ and ‘Go die, Brittany,’” Leduc said, in reference to the residential advisor who filed the bias incident report. “There were comments about lynchings and ‘Get your crosses and sheets.’ It sort of makes them feel at the very least unwelcomed and at the most unsafe.”
Leduc added that some black residential advisors said they didn’t feel safe leaving their rooms because of the messages.
President Nathan Hatch lamented in a public message posted on the university website on Sept. 12 that “raw emotion, aggression and defensiveness drowned out the mutual desire for justice, inclusion and equity.” Hatch challenged students to “avoid the anonymity of social media for the weekend and talk to someone with a Wake Forest experience different from your own — face to face.”
Leduc said he has had interactions with Wake Forest police that made him feel unwelcome, including being followed at night and asked if he belonged on campus. He said staff of color experience the same thing, citing an incident in which he said campus police asked a staff member for her ID while she was attempting to deliver supplies to an on-campus performance by hip-hop DJ 9th Wonder. Leduc added that the police didn’t seem satisfied when the staff member tried to show them her campus log-in information on a mobile device and then her Facebook page to prove that she was a staff member.
Frustration among students of color and a perceived climate of hostility surfaced dramatically in January when campus police shut down a party hosted by Kappa Alpha Psi, a black fraternity, that was held on campus.
“They called in backup because they thought a riot was going to break out,” said student Kristen McCain in a short documentary posted on YouTube. “There was a group of people waiting outside to get in. I had witnessed one kid get arrested for saying the ‘F’ word, and they claimed that he was getting aggressive.”
After students organized a town-hall meeting to vent frustrations at campus police and the administration, the university commissioned an outside investigation into allegations of racial bias.
Developmental Associates, the firm that conducted the investigation, reported to the university in August that none of the allegations “rose to the level of actual bias.”
The report went on to acknowledge that arrests of minority students at Wake Forest are disproportionately higher than their representation in the student population as a whole, adding that “the numbers are clearly in accord with state and national trends.”
Leduc expressed concern that the university is letting itself off the hook by accepting a report that sets national trends as the bar for unbiased law enforcement.
“It raises a lot of questions about what the school thinks bias is,” he said.
The report by Developmental Associates noted that outside investigators found differences in the way black and white fraternities were treated by the university. The finding was, again, followed by a caveat that “the differences are explained by non-racial factors.”
Those differences can be explained by financial resources and demographic clout, Leduc said.
“There’s a lot of places on campus that you can party on Friday and Saturday,” he said. “The fraternity lounges are predominantly white. They have a lounge space underneath the dorms. There’s a large student body that’s interested in being in those dorms, so they can afford to pay for the lounges. For a lot of black fraternities and sororities, it’s hard to get your numbers up to get your lounge space. Most of their parties are held at the Barn. The Barn is on the periphery of campus. It has a capacity of 200. The campus’ large-event venue policy basically says if you have a venue with a capacity of 200 people or more you have to have police presence. The lounges all have capacity under 200, but they often have more than 200 people at their parties with people spilling out.”
Developmental Associates recommended that the university revise its policies.
“The use of lounges on campus versus using a large venue has generated much discussion,” the report said. “Activities at the lounges sometimes result in unsupervised parties thus creating an opportunity for heavy and underage drinking. Therefore, we recommend that the administration review this procedure to make sure that all student events are policed in an equal manner.”
Neal said in an email that “efforts to ensure equity for social events in lounges and in large venues are already underway” without providing specifics.
Leduc said that while some lower-level administrators appear to be sympathetic, a preoccupation with a capital campaign by university leadership drives a reflex to sweep minority students’ concerns under the rug.
“While there is room for progress,” Neal said in an email on behalf of Wake Forest, “to say that university leaders have taken no action relating to fostering a diverse and inclusive campus community is simply not true.” She said the university is committed to creating an inclusive environment for all members of the campus community, and is determined to address the situation any time a student doesn’t feel respected or valued.
“I just really hope the administration is responsive,” Leduc said. “We’ve seen a lot of talk about changing things, but not a lot of action. I know a lot of students want to work with administration, but their actions have eroded the trust they would have had if they had acted sooner.”