It was unanimous among the roughly 80-100 students gathered yesterday in a crowded Willard classroom. The discussion of race relations at Penn State that was stirred up by the culturally insensitive image of the Penn State sorority, Chi Omega, wasn’t going to be swept under the rug.
Anger, disgust, disappointment, and a call to action were vibrantly displayed as a diverse collage of students discussed their personal reaction to the ignorant photograph. The distorted, Facebook picture of the sisters of Chi Omega that put racial tension into the national spotlight, was glaring like a spotlight from the projector screen.
But a surprisingly diverse decision on what to do next seemed to be evident in a group that — in just its gathering — proved solidarity among a mosaic of on-campus organizations.
Among those in attendance were members of the NAACP, Black Caucus, the Puerto Rican Student Association, the Mexican American Student Association, Students for a Democratic Society, and the Asian Pacific American Caucus. Assorted faculty members, students from various other organizations, and students with no formal affiliation at all were also among the ranks.
A representative from the Paul Robeson Cultural Center urged students to “channel your anger” and to use this opportunity to help educate the Penn State community as a whole about issues that no one is talking about otherwise.
“This is bigger than Chi Omega.”
Heads nodded across the classroom in confirmation. This wasn’t a forum for petty semantic spewing. With momentum of this proportion, something positive could be pieced together like a Frankenstein to influence actual change in the racial climate of Penn State.
“This is the time for Penn State to take a critical look at its cultural identity,” said Ryan Brown, president of Black Caucus.
Some debated the statement released by Penn State through the Director of University Relations, Lisa Powers. The official statement reads:
“While these individuals are within their First Amendment rights to express themselves in this way, we are appalled that they would display this level of insensitivity.”
To some students, it appeared Penn State was using the First Amendment as a harbor against tackling the real issue of why this image was so offensive to so many people.
“Why should my parents spend money for me to go to a university that is insensitive to my culture?” asked one student emotionally. He expressed anger over feeling like he is open to the culture of Penn State, but his peers are unresponsive to learning about his Latino heritage. This begged the question, to what point do we curtail the freedom of speech to ensure the unity and respect of people of all backgrounds?
Almost everyone seemed to agree that the ponchos, sombreros and mustaches weren’t necessarily the problem. It was what was on the signs that seemed to marginalize the Mexican people as nothing more than pot smoking migrant workers. As someone I spoke with described it, it’s like a bad jest from the 90’s that people are still thinking is funny.
“This is our culture. Our culture isn’t a joke,” said one student who felt like the novelty of Mexican Halloween costumes has worn off. “We are offended by these pictures.”
The student went on to say that what was on display in the Chi Omega image was sheer ignorance. Later on in the discussion, students compared the situation to students wearing black face on Halloween — an issue that was brought up to UPUA earlier in the semester.
“You need Malcolm and Martin to make things move,” said Ryan Brown of the Black Caucus. Brown suggested that students should take a two pronged approach to turning the negative publicity brought on by the media attention into positive societal change.
One route would be a bureaucratic approach in which key members meet with the administration to implement cultural sensitivity measures across the campus. UPUA president, Courtney Lennartz, already expressed interest in forming a focus group as well as discussing the matter with the administration. MASA has already been in direct communication with the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life.
“We should not be reactive but proactive,” said one student stressing the importance of education in combating racial ignorance. “We need to not act out of anger, but with our minds.”
However, some felt that students still needed to be vocal on the issue to make sure that Penn State knows that “our peace is disturbed,” as Ryan Brown put it. Brown suggested that being proactive can still mean using direct action to stifle ignorance.
Regardless of the agenda, it’s clear that the cause isn’t going to die down with so many eyes scrutinizing our university’s every action. And with so many students holding a range of opinions on the fate and culpability of the Chi Omega sisters, the discussion of racial inequity at Penn State has been amplified from a quiet, hush-hush, scattered conversation to a discussion over the national microphone.
One NAACP representative said it best, “It starts with us. This is a Penn State community problem and we need to change it.”