Last week was certainly an interesting time to be on staff at Onward State. After breaking the story that Chi Omega was under investigation by Panhel for a photo posted on Facebook, the reaction was both immediate and scattered. What we anticipated to be a story isolated to Penn State turned into a national outrage in the course of an afternoon — with popular outlets such as the Huffington Post, CNN, and even the British newspaper The Daily Mail picking up the story and running with it.
Some people criticized Onward State for reporting on the incident in the first place — either claiming that we should have left it alone because it made Penn State look bad or that somehow we were labeling everyone in the Greek community as racially insensitive (the latter, by the way, couldn’t be further from the truth). Others were upset that it was even a story at all, and couldn’t understand why signs and slogans that stereotype Mexican drug use were offensive. And yet others were appalled — even sickened — by the actions of Chi Omega, lambasting the sorority for even hosting a Mexican “fiesta” in the first place.
The reactions were all over the place, but it was the hottest topic on campus for most of the week. President Erickson released a statement, calling the actions of Chi Omega a “lack of awareness about the human condition.” Around 75 students walked into the UPUA meeting last Wednesday night and spoke at an engaging open student forum that lasted over an hour, asking their student representatives to combat racism on campus. A task force was formed, and over 30 student leaders from a wide range of organizations met a couple days later, aimed at fostering diversity awareness.
All of these things look good on paper, but what really is the solution?
To find a solution, first we must address the problem. Do I think the girls of Chi Omega are racist? Almost certainly not. They’re immature and ignorant and annoying and any number of adjectives, but I would have a hard time believing the girls in that photo would have any ill-wishes toward people who come from the Hispanic culture. Should they have realized that those signs would be offensive to a large group of people? Absolutely — and I’m sure not a day will go by that they won’t regret it.
But is this type of racism worth shaking fists over, and how do we prevent it from happening?
I’m of the notion that diversity isn’t something you can teach — it’s something you experience. Any number of task force meetings or emotional testimonials in front of like-minded people isn’t going to be anything more than hot air. Any reasonable person who goes through every day life — especially at Penn State — experiences more diversity awareness than anyone can teach. Diversity isn’t something you can force, it’s just something that a rational society understands.
Look, real racism in this country does exist on the fringe. There will always be racism somewhere. The Ku Klux Klan still has some 3-5,000 members. Groups like the Minutemen Project or the American Patrol would have no problem standing at the border with a shotgun just hoping that some unsuspecting immigrant tries to cross over. There is real hate in America — whether it’s groups like these or the guy who rides all over town with a Confederate flag hanging out the back of a pickup truck yelling the n-word like it’s meaningless.
There will always be people who are intolerant of others. That’s life. Luckily, we live in a country where these groups are in the vast minority — and at Penn State, essentially nonexistent.
Of course, Chi Omega was wrong to perpetrate negative stereotypes, but they don’t deserve to be painted as villains, either. There was no malice involved in their actions, only ignorance — a trait that every college student has been guilty of at one time or another. If you think a diversity awareness campaign or a rally at Old Main is going to stop college students from being ignorant, you’re wrong. Hopefully next time, people will think twice before they joke about the negative stereotypes of another culture. That’s all we can hope for.
One of my favorite experiences at Penn State is always before football games when the band plays our Alma Mater. Whether you’re in the middle of your group of friends or standing next to someone you’ve never met, everyone links arms and sings. You probably don’t know the background of the person next to you, but we all still go through this ceremony every Saturday without hesitation. Black, white, Asian, Hispanic, or any ethnicity — we still link arms and share that moment together as Penn Staters and as human beings, and no one gives it a second thought.
When you think about it, isn’t that what matters the most?