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Does This Costume Make Me Look Racist?

A recent Western-themed, border-patrol party at a U Texas fraternity stems from a history and legacy of unequal power relations.

We need more than campus climate reports and anecdotal observations regarding current student attitudes about race... We need to study the cognitive, political, and economic effects of race play when it's normalized, permissible and excused. (Photo: Jillian C. York)

At the University of Texas at Austin, a fraternity recently stirred controversy with a Western-themed, border-patrol party that featured sombreros, ponchos, construction uniforms, and tags with Spanish-sounding names.

This sparked protests on campus with students, and supporters gathered at the Cesar Chavez statue in West Mall with signs that read, “#RespectMyCulture” and “I am not a stereotype!”

There have been calls for disciplinary actions against the fraternity. Others have emphasized the need for more diversity education. There have been promises for open dialogue, which is usually the case in such instances.

But asking if the costumes are racist is not the right question. What we need to determine is what their decision to dress as “Mexicans” tells us about this historical time of demographic change.

Texas is in the process of a significant and ongoing demographic shift. Hispanics already make up 38.2 percent of the Texas population and are projected to be the majority as early as 2036.

At UT Austin, Latinos account for only 18 percent of the student body and 6 percent of the faculty.

Fifty percent of the Texas Hispanic population is younger than 18, and we hold few positions of power relative to our overall population numbers, but that is beginning to change.

Race play and cultural appropriation are steeped in a history and legacy of unequal power relations that have become a hallmark of American identity. Perhaps then this race play is a way not to contend with the human dimensions of this population shift or a way of expressing anxiety about it.

What happened at the Fiji fraternity party is nothing new, nor is it localized.

Most famously, American colonists in 1771 dressed as Indians and dumped tea into Boston Harbor in protest of increased British oppression.

Eye witness John Andrew reported: “They say the actors were Indians from Narragansett. Whether they were or not, to a transient observer they appeared as such, being clothed in blankets with the heads muffled and copper-colored countenances, being each armed with a hatchet or axe, or pair of pistols . . .”

The ethnic dress was meant to affirm the position of the protesters as distinctly American subjects.

It has since become as American as apple pie, so why are we surprised and offended when it happens? Because it is no longer a way simply to assert American identity, but a way to mark others as excluded from it.

Given the widespread nature of these occurrences, such behaviors are seen as normal for certain groups, almost a rite of passage, especially at colleges across the United States.

In 2008, University of North Dakota sorority Gamma Phi Beta held a “Cowboys and Indians” party where people wore paint and feathered bonnets. In spring 2014, the sorority again found itself in trouble for dressing up like Indians after the retirement of the “Fighting Sioux” mascot.

At University of California, San Diego, in 2010, students used racial stereotypes to create a “ghetto atmosphere” for an event dubbed the “Compton Cookout,” in reference to the working-class Black and Latino community in Southern California.

Duke University was the site of the 2013 “Asian Racist Rager,” where partygoers donned “stereotypical Asian costumes.”

In 2014, photos of women in serapes and moustaches at a “Mexican-themed” party thrown by the Chi Omega sorority at Penn State made the rounds on social media.

This behavior moves beyond college campuses into pop culture and fashion.

Take Miley Cyrus and her Chinese eyes to Ralph Lauren’s offensive 2014 holiday ad campaign that featured historic sepia photos of Native men dressed in his new clothing collection.

These individual acts are not instances of protest. These acts reduce people to a set of physical characteristics, devalue human life, and rarely have substantive consequences.

In response to such incidents, universities have held campus conversations, earmarked resources for the recruitment of diverse students and faculty, established or hired more staff to oversee equity, all with mixed results.

We need more than campus climate reports and anecdotal observations regarding current student attitudes about race. We need faculty, staff and other resources to conduct sustained research efforts on how college students form, understand and act on their ideas about race. We need to study the cognitive, political, and economic effects of race play when it’s normalized, permissible and excused.

Currently, no such study exists, but if it did, the results would have far-reaching implications for everything from educational initiatives and policy making to business and healthcare.

Declarations of a post-race society in the Obama age were demonstrably premature. Radical chic fashion or bumper sticker politics cannot replace difficult dialogues about race, activism and a sustained commitment to change.

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