DURHAM — A Duke University fraternity has been suspended from its national affiliation after complaints about a themed party last week that featured Asian stereotypes.
About 200 Duke students gathered Wednesday to protest the Kappa Sigma party, which was held Friday. The party originally was called “Asia Prime” in social media posts that featured references to drinking sake and an exaggerated, stereotypical language, such as saying “Herro” instead of “Hello.”
In response to student complaints, the fraternity changed the party theme to “International Relations” two days before the event. Still, photos from the party showed mostly white students wearing sumo wrestler costumes and chopsticks in their hair.
That was enough to inspire Duke senior Ting-Ting Zhou, president of the Asian Students Association, to help organize Wednesday’s protest.
“My parents gave up everything they had in China to come here to give me a better life: their language, their culture, their educational recognition, their careers,” Zhou said. Other students “can pretend to be Asian for this one night, for this one party, but I have to be Asian my whole life. It trivializes me! It makes me feel like less than a human being.”
The national Kappa Sigma Fraternity suspended the Duke fraternity’s charter Wednesday pending an investigation, which should be finished in about two weeks, said Mic Wilson, national executive director. The Duke chapter must cease all operations and activities until the investigation is complete, Wilson said. Then, he added, the national board of directors will decide whether action needs to be taken.
“We certainly do not condone” the party, Wilson said. “Kappa Sigma is a very diverse organization, and we celebrate that. We have members from every walk of life, every culture, and we have a lot of brothers in our fraternity who are Asian-American.”
‘A persistent battle’
Larry Moneta, Duke’s vice president of student affairs, said the university is investigating the party but that it does not appear that the fraternity violated any specific university policy.
But that doesn’t mean the fraternity’s actions were acceptable, Moneta said.
“(We) continue to advise them and turn this as much as we can into a learning opportunity,” Moneta said. “This is a persistent battle against ignorance that students arrive with, that students develop, and that is reinforced in various cultural conditions on and off the campus. This is nothing unique to Duke.”
At Wednesday’s protest on the lawn in front of Duke Chapel, students stood around a sign several feet high that bore the message “Race is not a party.”
“A common counterargument we get is, ‘OK, if it had been an ‘America’ party, which people do hold, then it would be OK,’ ” said Xiaohan Cai, a junior public policy major who participated in the protest. “But that’s not a marginalized group, so the context is very important.”
According to Duke’s website, 22 percent of the undergraduate population was Asian-American in 2008, the last year statistics were available.
This isn’t the first time Duke’s Kappa Sigmas have been in trouble. In the early 2000s, the chapter, affiliated with the national fraternity since 1873, lost its charter because of alcohol and social violations, Wilson said. The fraternity was only re-chartered, and thus allowed back onto Duke’s campus, in April 2011.
‘Pilgrims and Indians’
Kappa Sigma isn’t the first party to be accused of celebrating stereotypes at Duke. In November 2011, the university’s chapter of Pi Kappa Phi drew criticism for throwing a “Pilgrims and Indians” party, in which the invitations encouraged students to find their inner “hot natives” or “Pocahotness.”
Zhou said she’s seen a few parties with themes such as “Black Entertainment Television vs. Country Music Television” since she’s been a student.
“The Pocahotness party was so recent, … and nothing was done,” Zhou said. “They know this is wrong, but they still do it. They also know that nothing will happen. They know that in another month, this will all blow over.”