“Compton Cookout” Party at UCSD Ignites Racial Firestorm

By Special Correspondent Nadra Kareem, originally published at Race Relations on About.com

The University of California at San Diego is still feeling the aftermath of an off-campus party organized by students dubbed the “Compton Cookout” in which racial stereotypes of blacks were used in flyers and a Facebook invitation. According to the Los Angeles Times, “the invitation included references to ‘dat Purple Drank,’ an apparent mix of ‘sugar, water, and the color purple, chicken, coolade, and of course Watermelon.’ Party organizers aimed to have a “ghetto” theme Feb. 15 poking fun of Compton, a community near Los Angeles made famous by rappers and films about urban blacks.

When word spread around campus about the party, black students were outraged, as were administrators who worry that prospective students of color may decide not to apply to UCSD because of the incident. Presently, fewer than 2% of UCSD students are black.

“I’m most touched by the fact that students who personally felt stereotyped are hurting,” UCSD Vice Chancellor Penny Rue told NBC San Diego.

Imagine how you would feel if you were an African American student who rose from the ranks of a place such as Compton, only to have white classmates stereotype you as being “ghetto.” And ghetto in these situations always means tacky, boorish, classless, ignorant and laughable, not to mention a drain on the system or the single parent of multiple children from multiple mates. The Los Angeles Times posted verbatim what women attending the party were told to wear and how to act. I’m choosing not to re-post the hatred it contained on the Race Relations site.

In short, those who planned the party took the worst stereotypes of African Americans and threw them in the face of black students who embody exactly the opposite. Making it into an institution such as UCSD requires intelligence, talent and hard work, but “ghetto” parties are more interested in showcasing blacks who fit stereotypes such as gold chain-wearing pimp or welfare queen. It’s unfortunate that no one had the foresight to see how planning such a party would be a slap in the face to the small number of African American students at UCSD. Being part of a community is a huge part of college life. It’s hard to feel like you belong when you’re a minority, however, and even harder when you discover that students from the majority culture view you in terms of racist caricatures.

“It’s not cool,” black UCSD junior Theresa Richards said of the party. “It’s disheartening and it’s hurtful, and I’m appalled that we’re having to talk about it in this day and age.”

Tensions over the incident heightened Feb. 18 when a student-run television station used racial epithets to defend the off-campus party, the Times reported.

The clip was “very racially offensive,” Rue told the paper. How much sense does it make to organize a party others consider to be racist and then defend the decision to have the party by invoking racist slurs? That alone rules out any argument that this is a freedom of speech issue and that black students on campus are simply too sensitive.

The good news about the incident is that it may lead to more discussions about race and racism at the university and inspire UCSD to take a more proactive stance in promoting diversity. Rue told the Times that officials have already agreed to student demands calling for a task force aimed at boosting African American faculty hiring and addressing under-representation of black students on campus. Moreover, NBC San Diego reports that school officials are looking for ways to hold the hosts accountable and are planning a series of campus teaching moments, including a “Not in Our Community” campaign. In addition, fraternity members involved in the party have been suspended by their organizations, the Times reports.

Hopefully, UCSD does all it can to discipline the students involved. Such parties have been going on at various universities for years, and, for whatever reason, students just aren’t getting the message that these events are offensive and decidedly unfunny.

I second the remarks of California Assemblyman Isadore Hall III, whose 52nd district includes Compton, about the incident.

“I don’t want these organizations to merely apologize for their actions, I want names,” he said. “I want these individuals and these organizations to understand that this racist and sexist behavior will not be tolerated here in California.”

Photo of UCSD students attending a Feb 19th forum to discuss the racially offensive events, courtesy of KPBS