A fraternity listserv email thread containing racial and homophobic slurs prompted a member to leave the organization at the end of the spring semester.
Just before midnight on April 21, former Pi Kappa Alpha member and then-College senior Curtis Harris sent an email to the group’s listserv — of current members and some alumni — about offensive language. He had recently become frustrated with members’ use of racial slurs such as the n-word in joking contexts.
“To put it in perspective saying the n-word (the term that is used negatively towards the African ethnicity) or the f-word (the term that is used negatively towards the LGBT community) is just as bad as using a term that the Nazi’s would have created for Jews,” Harris wrote in the email. “I hate to get that deep, but I’m f[***]ing sick of the bigotry.”
Some members and alumni responded in agreement, but others responded in a more joking way. One alumnus used the word “n*****f**gots,” which was a reference to a video posted in the listserv. After another alumnus asked if someone “[could] use it in a sentence?” a Pike freshman responded to the prompt.
“Sweetgreen employs n*****f**gots — the gay, black guy that served me lunch,” he said in the email.
Harris said he submitted his request to deactivate from the fraternity the same day, and his phone and email inbox were soon flooded with apology emails. Other members attempted to talk to him in person, but Harris avoided them.
“I didn’t really want to talk to them in person and get into any arguments — what happened, happened, and I just wanted to be done with it,” he said.
The Pike freshman, who was later suspended from the fraternity, sent text messages to Harris and an apology email to the listserv the next day, on April 23. In the email, he stated his regret in using offensive language and promised to apologize to everyone in person at the Pike chapter house. As a condition for being interviewed, the student is identified only by his former membership and class year.
“The fact that they responded to my email, which was asking for more sensitive language, in such a joking and derogatory way was not only offensive, but it just really shows that they don’t get what I was even trying to say,” Harris said in an interview following his request to deactivate.
In response to the comments in the listserv, Pike President and then-College sophomore Max Wengyn reached out to Judicial Board Chairman and then-College junior James Townsend for an internal standards review of the incident and recommendation of sanctions and to Associate Director of the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life Meghan Gaffney for sensitivity training.
When contacted by The Daily Pennsylvanian, OFSL Director Eddie Banks-Crosson deferred comment to Pike Alumni Advisor and former board member of the International Fraternity Bruce Wolfson.
Wolfson, the Pike alumni advisor, expressed the organization’s no-tolerance policy for offensive language.
“The fraternity has absolutely no tolerance for racism or any other prejudice based on sexual orientation, gender or any other factors,” he said. “We work very hard on that, and we’ve invested a lot of time, effort and money in trying to educate our members and leaders.”
Wengyn also denounced the actions of the individuals who used offensive language in the email thread in the statement.
“Pi Kappa Alpha does not tolerate prejudice,” he wrote. “Our values are not just words; they are words we live by ... We deeply regret that anyone pledged to uphold our values would so flagrantly violate them.”
But even before this specific incident, Harris and other members of the fraternity had noticed the use of derogatory language.
“There were a couple of moments when I was at the chapter house where racial slurs were brought up,” Harris said. Other minority members of the fraternity had conflicting opinions over whether the email thread was an isolated incident of insensitivity.
The Pike freshman who had responded with the slurs said the email he sent was not representative of what he or the fraternity “believes on a daily basis.” Pike’s diversity and welcoming environment initially motivated him to join the fraternity, he said. He said the offensive response he wrote was because he failed to understand the context of the listserv.
“Me, being brand-new to the listserv just responded to his request about using the term in a sentence,” the student said in an interview. “I was just like, ‘ok, is this how things are done?’ I did not mean any offensive at all to the African-American or the LGBT community and that was addressed in the apology email.”
“In the last email I had overstepped boundaries in a poor attempt to make a rude joke,” he wrote in the apology email. “I have great respect for and did not mean any offense to the black or LGBT community ... I believe that Curtis and others who have tried to admonish the careless usage of words such as the N word and the F word have the right vision of Pike in mind.”
Despite the apology emails and texts that Harris received, he felt certain about his decision to deactivate from the fraternity.
“Them apologizing and then me accepting it — that doesn’t really teach them a lesson,” he said. “I’m not saying they need to be taught a lesson or punished, but these guys can just go on saying this stuff the next day. I’ve heard so many apologies from people who use offensive language, and then they just say it the next day.”
Harris also added that although this email thread motivated him to leave the fraternity, this was not the only isolated instance of derogatory language used in casual settings. He said that new pledge nicknames assigned were sometimes racial or religiously based. The DP was unable to independently verify this particular information.
Wolfson, the Pike alumni advisor, expressed approval for the way the leaders of the fraternity had reacted to the listserv comments. He said that this was a critical learning experience and a way for members to reinforce the values of the fraternity.
Wolfson also added that although the derogatory comments were unacceptable, they were not representative of the organization as a whole. He pointed to Pike’s diversity in terms of race — with about half non-white membership in the chapter — and sexual orientation, and said that “it is a group that has exemplified diversity.”
“I think the facts speak for themselves,” Wolfson said in response to Harris’ claims that he has observed other instances of offensive language in the fraternity. “Whatever words he may have heard that he finds offensive, and that he may think suggests a culture of intolerance is just totally inconsistent with the membership of the chapter.”
However, Harris said that after others found out he’d sent information about the email incident to the DP, he was met with pushback. He said a couple of former Pike members — who, due to an unrelated infraction, were removed from the fraternity with the chance to petition for alumni status after a given period of time — threatened to send information about him to his future employer. Harris said most of these conversations were in person and that he’d deleted text conversations involving the threats. He would not give the names of those who had contacted him, so this information could not be independently verified.
But after Harris said he’d received these threats, he began to have serious doubts about contacting the DP regarding the email thread, as he was concerned that the threats could impact his future professional life. However, after talking with other members of the fraternity, Harris said that he felt like this issue was necessary to make public and raise more awareness about the use of offensive language.
“It was just a couple of people in my frat, and other people were definitely not involved, but it really made me stressed out,” Harris said.
However, Harris expressed the necessity of bringing awareness to this type of issue.
“More people need to be aware that a situation like is happening right on campus — and I’m not even sure it’s really just a Pike issue,” he said. “It’s 2016 and the fact that people are still using these racial slurs without thinking is kind of a scary thought.”Comments powered by Disqus
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