Duke University Frat Holds Racist Asian-Themed Party Complete with Coolie Hats and Yellowface

Brothers at the Duke University chapter of Kappa Sigma held an Asian-themed party last week. And it was oh-so-incredibly racist.

It all began with the circulated email invitation. It was as if someone had taken Full Metal JacketThe Good EarthBreakfast at Tiffany’s, and every episode of Charlie Chan and ground it with a mortar and pestle, and then placed the resulting smooth paste in a beaker over-top an open flame in order to distill the very essence of purified anti-Asian racism. To wit (these and all other images courtesy of Asian Student Association at Duke, which added the arrows and commentary to the original images):

You had me at "fuck you".
You had me at “fuck you”.

Protests and a formal complaint of bias from the Asian American community at Duke University forced the brothers of Kappa Sigma to rename their party “International Relations”. However, photos uploaded to the frat’s Facebook page (and later removed) prove that the party and all its full-glory racism went on as planned. Party attendees showed up in a variety of stereotype-riddled “Asian-themed” costumes, including coolie hats, kimono, sumo wrestler fat-suits, and loin-clothes (?).

The woman locking lips with the mostly-naked man in the coolie hat may or may not be dressed as a prostitute.
The woman locking lips with the mostly-naked man in the coolie hat may or may not be dressed as a prostitute.
And, of course, no "Asian-themed" costume is complete without a peace sign.
And, of course, no “Asian-themed” costume is complete without a peace sign.

Let’s be totally clear: this shit is racist.

It’s offensive for a whole host of reasons. First of all, this shit perpetuates degrading stereotypes of Asian/Asian American people and our culture; stereotypes that have been historically used to denigrate and dehumanize Asian people since we arrived on American soil. Y’know, the “good ‘ol days” when we were referred to as “Chinamen” and mocked for that r/l slurring in our accented speech moments before we were raped and lynched.

This party also underscores the Other-ization and marginalization of Duke’s Asian American students, who are as much a part of the Duke community as the members of Kappa Sigma.  And finally, it encouraged widespread yellowface by non-Asian students who think that becoming and being Asian is as simple as a quick wardrobe change. Asians are people. We are not a costume theme.

In the wake of the party, student organizations at Duke organized a widespread campus flyering of the above images — a public shaming of the brothers of Kappa Sigma for their behaviour. They further called for Kappa Sigma to lose its fraternity charter, which it had only had returned to it last year after a 10-year hiatus when it was forced to operate unofficially due to violation of on-campus rules governing fraternities.

Kappa Sigma responded with an email apology to the Duke community:

“Upon learning of the deeply damaging effects of our email to our fellow students, we should have completely canceled the aforementioned party,” the email read. “The Duke Community in which we exist is one that we see too often as divided, and while our actions have brought attention to and widened that divide, it is our sincere intention to work to contribute to a United Duke.”

Meanwhile, there has also been on-campus backlash against the response by the Asian Student Association and other organizations, specifically criticizing the use of Facebook pictures in their public shaming campaign. Some have argued that the ASA has unfairly targeted partygoers, rather than the organizers of the party. Writes one commenter on the ASA’s open discussion on the topic:

Now while I agree with the intentions of this event, I do not agree with how ASA or the initial creators of the flyers executed them. First and foremost, I don’t think it’s EVER be okay under any circumstances to violate another student’s privacy. I’m certain that no one asked for permission or consent regarding these more or less compromising photos.

To this I say — if you participated, you are culpable. The women in the above photos didn’t trip, fall, and stumble into some racist Asian get-up. No one subjected them to a reverse mugging, and forced a pile of coolie hats into their unwilling arms. No on is secretly standing behind that girl up there and demanding that she hold that peace sign up or know the full wrath of a taser. These people knew the party’s theme, and they chose to attend anyways. They put together their racist costumes of their own free will. They implicitly permitted their pictures to be posted to the Internet by Kappa Sigma. There can be no legal expectation of privacy here, and thus no violation of it.

Others on the ASA open discussion have criticized the public shaming campaign by suggesting that the Asian American community is “too angry” about this party. Writes another commenter:

I’m just disappointed by the lack of maturity with which this situation was handled. Was KSig’s initial email offensive? I’d say yes, definitely. Is it indicative of a more widespread issue within our campus culture regarding stereotypes and cultural sensitivity that needs to be addressed by the student body? Absolutely. But should we be protesting against one of (truly if not the most) internationally affiliated IFC fraternities on campus for their “racism?” I’d say that’s not only extreme, but also missing the point, and an action that only begets disproportionate backlash and knee-jerk reactions from both sides. I am all for creating a more accepting and tolerant atmosphere on this campus, but let’s start by doing so collectively and working together, not by singling out an individual group, which is got us into this whole mess in the first place.

I get it. This public shaming campaign is ugly. But, racism is ugly. It’s visceral and nasty and painful and often times violent and sometimes deadly. Y’know what happened when Dr. Martin Luther King marched peacefully in the Deep South for civil rights? He got hit in the head by a goddammed rock. Y’know what happened to the three Cornellians who drove down from Ithaca to join the movement? They were lynched on the side of a deserted highway. Sometimes anger is the only rational response to have.

Look, I do not condone any potential responses by the ASA that have been, themselves, racist or sexist. But I also cannot sit by and support the argument that Asian Americans (or any minority group) should respond to racism with only “a measure of calm”. Sometimes it takes time to find the strength to be the better man.

This isn’t just some party thrown by some dumb kids. I mean, yes it is, but when I see those coolie hats and loinclothes, I see what kids at an esteemed school of higher education think of me, of my mother and my father, of my sister and my future children. I see how they see my skin and my culture and my people. This isn’t some stupid prank — this is (at least metaphorically) racial violence: the willful and deliberate misappropriation of a person’s very identity and being for another’s transient and drunken amusement and debauchery.

Is it not a second form of racial violence to tell a people that, in the face of that cultural and racial violation, their own emotional reactions are invalid?

I agree that the Asian American community of Duke must find a way to forge a positive and constructive outcome from this incident. And already, they have: there has been an outpouring of support from Duke’s other minority groups, including the on-campus Black Students Alliance, National Pan-Hellenic Council, Lambda Phi Epsilon (a national Asian-oriented fraternity), and the Students of the Carribean Association. In my own undergraduate days, another incident of anti-Asian bias was what inspired me to join my local Asian American organization and eventually pursue a minor in Asian American studies; and it all came from a first spark of anger.

I await to see what happens next at Duke. But, I do know that parents should think twice before sending their kids to this school.

Act Now! If you are a student at Duke University, an open discussion is scheduled for tonight at 7:30 pm at McClendon 5 (hopefully, if you’re on-campus, that means something to you). Here’s the Facebook event page. There’s also an on-campus protest scheduled for earlier this afternoon, at 1pm. Contact Duke’s Asian Student Association for additional information or for other opportunities to get involved.

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  • Yuen

    Look at them. They are not exactly making their parents proud or this country proud in any way. They look like trash.

  • Mark

    You have an ally in me for the bulk of your statements in this article. However you lost me at the “racial violence” comments. Calling something violence when it isn’t in fact violent does a misservice to victims of actual violence. It down actual incidents of violence by grouping them with stupid obnoxious racist incidents like this that are not violent. To borrow a term it “defines deviancy up”. The word violence mean something and violent acts are qualitatively different than nonviolent acts. I probably have been guilty of this before as have activists on all sorts of fronts. Among other things it discredits the accuser and creates an MEGO responses from rational observers who would otherwise be on our side. I’ve unfortunately been the victim of real violence racial and otherwise and this kind of hyperbole belittles those of us who have experienced actual violence.

  • A fair criticism, Mark.