As faculty members at Pennsylvania State University, we are deeply troubled by a racist and offensive photograph taken at a recent party involving the Nu Gamma chapter of Chi Omega sorority.
The photograph not only reinforces a deeply troubling stereotype, but it also makes a mockery of Latino/a heritage and culture. We feel that it is imperative that we publicly speak out against such a polarizing action on the part of some members of the Penn State community. We hope to set the record straight about the history and danger of misguided and inappropriate costumes purportedly worn to have a good time and produce a laugh or two. During the 19th century, it was common for white actors to blacken their faces and exaggerate their lips while performing in minstrel shows as a way to demean African Americans’ culture, language variety, and body shape.
The stereotypes presented in these theatrical performances solidified racist attitudes and underpinned a notion of white supremacy that allowed for black disfranchisement, racial segregation, and extralegal violence.We believe the photograph of Chi Omega members dressed in sombreros and ponchos and holding offensive signs to be a present-day example of the racist iconography whose heritage dates back to minstrelsy. While some may posit that the photograph was harmless, or simply done in poor taste, we maintain that such images are unequivocally dangerous because they are rooted in the notion that certain ethnic groups have a proclivity to engage in illegal or inappropriate activities.
Not only is such a thought — whether consciously or subconsciously held — inaccurate and nonfactual, but it is also divisive and hurtful to members of the university community. Furthermore, because Penn State students live in a diverse society and will one day enter a diverse workforce, we must be vigilant about ensuring that our students recognize and reject their own racial bias. Although this incident came to light after the photograph was posted on a social media website, it would not be farfetched to believe that forms of costumed racism happen on college campuses more frequently than we know.
To combat this problem, the undersigned Penn State faculty pledge to sponsor teach-ins and other events to encourage honest conversations among members of our community about the best ways to make our campus free of culturally and racially insensitive materials. We speak out in defense of the Penn State Latino/a community and on behalf of all faculty and students who wish to participate in an inclusive university community.
Paul C. Taylor
On behalf of the Department of African American Studies