This week two Greek-sponsored parties at the University of Texas at Austin landed in the news for containing offensive Mexican themes.
On September 20, UT’s Delta Delta Delta and Zeta Tau Alpha sororities rented out a downtown Austin nightclub for their “fiesta-themed” party.
A Mexican fiesta can be innocent enough, but as one anonymous commenter on Greekchat.com said, “When you add in alcohol and 18-22 year olds, there’s no way it’s not going to ‘go there.’”
And go there it did. Young men were photographed at the party wearing T-shirts reading “Illegal” and “Border Patrol.” Others were videotaped in less inflammatory outfits like ponchos, sombreros and peasant blouses. Well, less inflammatory to me. But that’s the issue on the table. Some people see those as stereotypical and antiquated and therefore offensive. So, can a non-Mexican person get away with throwing a Mexican-themed party in this current anti-immigrant/anti-Latino political climate?
Before you answer that, consider the case of the UT chapter of Alpha Tau Omega. The fraternity planned to throw a party themed “A Border to Cross” until student outrage was such that they were pressured to not only cancel the plan, but issue a public apology. ATO member Nick Davis, a UT sophomore, told The Daily Texan that the fraternity planned to build an obstacle in the middle of the party to represent the border between the U.S. and Mexico.
Davis described the vision innocuously enough. “We’re going to have a Mexican side and a Texas side, with Mexican-themed drinks and then Texas-themed drinks,” he said. “We’re going to have a Mexican flag hanging up and kind of have a little party on the Mexican side. Then the band will be on the Texas side, and you can choose where you want to hang out, what kind of drink you want to get. That’s really the only reason we have that side.”
But does experience not tell us that a bunch of drunk, college kids are probably going to, in the words of our anonymous Greek friend, “go there” with Mexican stereotypes? And is that reason enough to create a petition to shut the Mexican-themed parties down as some students did?
“Just because something is not illegal or not a violation of policy, it can still have a detrimental impact on student or campus climate,” Ryan Miller, UT’s Associate Director of Campus Diversity and Strategic Initiatives, told me. Miller is lead team member for the Campus Climate Response Team, a group launched this spring that investigates incidents of bias at UT.
Miller, who is quick to point out that the CCRT is not a disciplinary team, says he often encourages those who are offended by someone else’s free speech to use their own free speech to answer back. And for those doing the offending, Miller says, “Often we’ll have conversations with them asking, ‘Is what you’re doing in line with the mission you say you have? With the goals you say you have?’”
It’s quite the balancing act to create a campus that both respects free speech and fosters an open and encouraging atmosphere for all—a dilemma we all grapple with in this modern, politically correct world. The alternatives are going back to Mad Men-era bigotry or this faux P.C. outrage that says, “I don’t agree with you so I want a public apology.”
At the end of the day, there’s no blanket solution. Each situation is different, but one thing’s for sure: there’s no shortage of demand for Miller’s team.