A Student’s Perspective on the Ground at Johns Hopkins

November 8, 2006

As soon as the Halloween party controversy hit Johns Hopkins University (JHU) last week, Ilana Wolk, sophomore at JHU and former FIRE Intern, contacted us. Below Ilana offers her insights into a situation that has gotten out of hand:

I walked through my upper quad this morning to find members of Sigma Chi fraternity handing out blue ribbons signifying their support for diversity on campus. Their actions were a reminder that two weekends ago this group of students was deemed racist and their activities were suspended because they hosted a costume party called “Halloween in the Hood.”
As a student at Hopkins, I am concerned. I feel the school used Sigma Chi as a scapegoat for a bigger issue. The Black Student Union (BSU) claimed that the party was just one small incident that perpetuates the anti-Black sentiment felt on campus. I don’t doubt their claims to disempowerment. But, I do feel that it was unfair for the administration to use this incident to legitimize those claims.
Numerous apologies by Sigma Chi indicate that their intent was not to be racist. Having a party with a theme of urban culture is not racist. Calling something “racist” just because it invokes even the thought of a specific ethnicity undermines the real struggles against true racism. Terms like “the Hood” and “bling-bling” are colloquialisms that have been adopted by today’s culture, regardless of background. They have become part of the common vernacular, so why should certain iterations of them be punished? Moreover, the claim that the pirate hanging over the entrance represented a lynching only buttresses the idea that Hopkins students were trying to create a problem where there wasn’t one. That skeleton was among numerous other decorations, and last time I checked pirates have no association with Black culture. The decorations were put up for a haunted house that Sigma Chi would host for neighborhood children the next week—an event that could not take place because the frat was suspended.
I fear for the community at Hopkins for a few reasons. First, I feel this incident only does more to divide the Hopkins community. Following the incident, it was easy to feel the tension between the white and black students. If there is a problem in the student community, I wish the issue could be pinpointed in a less obtuse manner. Second, this incident has awoken a new sense of political correctness on campus. President Brody has recently issued a statement saying that, “rude, disrespectful behavior is unwelcomed and will not be tolerated.” If my work at FIRE has taught me anything, it’s that this overreaching statement will lead to an innumerable amount of violations. It will succeed only in stemming the free exchange of ideas on campus because people will be afraid that anything they say could offend someone.
Hopkins needs to reevaluate this situation. They have completely overreacted to this party and have created a problem where one did not exist. To deem an entire fraternity racist is a very serious charge, one they will not easily rid themselves of. Despite President Brody’s implication that “the great majority of students” support his actions, by the mood on campus and the numerous Facebook groups that have popped up in support of Sigma Chi, it seems that most of the student body does not agree with the administration’s actions. Hopefully, the university will see that it has been unfair to Sigma Chi, will let them resume their activities, and will apologize for dubbing Sigma Chi a racist fraternity.
Ilana is wise to fear for the implications of JHU’s new Principles for Ensuring Equity, Civility and Respect for All. FIRE agrees that these principles will most likely not yield the harmonious campus that Brody envisions. FIRE plans to send a letter to JHU to stress that rules stating that “rude, disrespectful behavior…will not be tolerated” are not sound policy decisions and pave the way for further accusations of “offensive” behavior.