Following national conversations on race relations, Penn students were confronted with the issue on campus in the form of a holiday card.
On Sunday night, a member of the Phi Delta Theta fraternity posted what became a controversial Christmas photo on Facebook. The photo showed the brothers — most of whom appear to be caucasian — posing in holiday attire in a living room. Next to one of the brothers on the left of the photo was a dark-skinned blow-up doll.
In a draft of an apology emailed by College senior and Phi Delta Theta President Jimmy Germi to UMOJA co-chairs Wharton junior Rachel Palmer and College sophomore Ray Clark, the fraternity said that the doll was a Beyoncé sex toy originally meant as a gag gift at the group’s Secret Santa event.
“Given the larger conversations and actions taking place in the country, there’s never been a worse time to do what they did,” said College senior Keishawn Johnson, president of Penn’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
He referenced the conversations surrounding race relations sparked by the recent alleged police brutality cases in Ferguson and Staten Island. “It’s not just about police brutality, but about a society that puts a particular lens on African-Americans,” Johnson said.
Beyond the racial implications of the photo, students were also offended by the depiction of a female body through the use of a sex doll.
“The inclusion of a racially and sexually charged object in such a flagrant fashion displays a serious and immediate need for repercussions that reflect the severity of this misogynistic, racist offense,” a joint statement issued by the 5B — the five umbrella coalitions for minority groups on campus — and the Penn Consortium for Undergraduate Women said. "We—UMOJA, APSC, UMC, Latin@ Coalition, Lambda Alliance, and PCUW—firmly believe that when an event like this marginalizes one of our communities, it marginalizes us all."
“What particularly concerns us is how flippant this deeply misogynistic and racist choice seems to have been,” an addendum from the PCUW read.
The draft apology, signed “The Brothers of Phi Delta Theta at the University of Pennsylvania,” said the Beyoncé sex toy was “distasteful” and that “once removed from the packaging, it bore no semblance to the artist beyond skin color adding to its offensive nature.” The apology said “there were absolutely no prejudicial motivations behind the gift,” but acknowledged that “the absence of racial motivation is no justification for this act of poor judgement and the decision not to include a sex toy in a holiday picture should have been an easy one.”
Germi, who is also the president of the Interfraternity Council, could not be reached for public comment for this article. However, Clark, the UMOJA co-chair, wrote in an email that Germi is working with them to set up a meeting this week.
In their statements, UMOJA, 5B, and PCUW called for disciplinary action to be taken against the fraternity. UMOJA specifically called for the chapter to be fined and its rush activities to be suspended until “a council of peers deem it acceptable to resume activity after and instituted education process.” Further, the group urged the Office of Student Affairs/Fraternity and Sorority Life to enforce “mandatory cultural competency courses for all members to resume activity…” and for the fraternity’s national organization to be notified.
The 5B and PCUW joint statement also called for cultural competency training for both Phi Delta Theta and the Greek community on the whole.
College junior Erich Kessel, chair of Lambda Alliance, related this incident to the “gangsta”-themed mixer thrown by Beta Theta Pi and Chi Omega last semester. He said it might be indicative of a “trend in the Greek community” with regards to racial sensitivity.
However, Johnson said that the problem of cultural sensitivity isn’t just a Greek problem.
“I don’t want to say it’s limited to fraternity and sorority culture,” he said. “I think it’s related to larger society conversations that need to happen.”
“More than anything, seeing this photo just kind of reinforces the work that’s there to be done around race and the conversations that need to be had,” he added.
Staff Writer Ellie Schroeder contributed reporting.