Situated at the center of Penn’s campus, hidden behind mid-century Gothic Revival limestone, is Castle, home to the Psi Upsilon fraternity. However, behind its ornamental walls lies a controversial history. At a Sept. 4 party, a Penn sophomore was allegedly attacked by a Psi Upsilon brother inside the building, prompting a University investigation into the incident. Yet, an investigation was not the only result of the assault. When The Daily Pennsylvanian broke news of the story in late September, it infuriated much of the student body, who demanded that Penn take action.
Following the article’s release, posts expressing concern and outrage spread like wildfire. Particularly, an Instagram infographic provided by the Coalition Against Fraternity Sexual Assault that promoted participation in the protests held outside of Castle, as well as one detailing their 2021 demands, were widely liked and shared. Anybody with an Instagram account could easily learn the surface details of the incident by simply scrolling down their feed. Support came in the currency of likes, comments, and reposts.
Yet, the outpouring of shock and indignation did not resound as intensely on Locust Walk as it did through handheld screens. The Instagram post by CAFSA promoting the protest received 420 likes, and a petition to evict Psi Upsilon from Castle garnered nearly 6,000 signatures. However, the DP noted that only around 50 students showed up on the first day of protests, 40 on the second day, 25 on the third day, and 50 on the final day. These numbers are far less than what social media may have led one to expect: where was everybody who liked and shared posts regarding the incident? Where were the students who signed the petition? The number of students actively speaking out and protesting seemed to gradually dwindle as social media remained wrapped up in the incident at Castle.
On behalf of the Class Board 2025, the Class of 2025 President Will Krasnow said, “We're calling on all authorities [and] administration to do a thorough investigation of this scenario because at the end of the day, it’s incredibly important to the Class Board of 2025 that every student at Penn is safe and feels welcome and included.” However, the presence of most of its members was notably missing on the first day, much to the disappointment of many.
Following criticism from the first-year student body on Instagram, multiple members of Class Board 2025 released personal statements regarding the incident and reposted protest information, encouraging the Class of 2025 to attend. Many of them also attended the protests in the following days.
However, several students viewed this as a way to save face rather than a genuine desire to act. A member of the organizing group behind the protests against Castle, who asked to remain anonymous, stated, “We had just voted in those in student government, so I understand their reluctance to show any alliance to this movement. However, they ran on platforms that would be for the students and would represent us, but most of them didn’t even show that they cared about this.” And, for the most part, we agree — it can be difficult to insert yourself into such a narrative so early into your position; but, when they were elected, they pledged that they would speak up for their student body.
When we asked about the Board’s response to the criticism, Wharton first year Juan Ramos said, “A lot of them did show up to the following protests, but it was very reactionary and not from initially wanting to come. They didn't go on their own accord until after when they were called out. They had even apologized. We don't necessarily need your apology — we need your action.”
According to Krasnow, scheduling issues are what prompted the lack of an appearance: “I think it was just difficult with scheduling. There was a two-hour period window, and a lot of us had tests and exams. It happened to be that on that first day, and we couldn't be present.”
Still, they have yet to release a collective statement denouncing the assault, and as Ramos notes, it wasn’t until they were called out for their lack of action that their condemnation of the incident became clear on social media. Scheduling issues may have contributed to their absence on the first day; but, they also did not share information on the protest until their passivity was pointed out by their peers.
This begs the question: What constitutes genuine allyship? To what extent would Class Board 2025 releasing a statement on the incident, attending the protest, or even sharing an infographic on the event contribute to positive change? Given the considerable masses that were already sharing such posts in the student body, how impactful would it have truly been if the Board members had done the same earlier?
A senior in the College, who attended the protest each day and who requested to remain anonymous, said, “[Social media] was good in a way that there was attention spread and that people were able to engage with the issue, but there was a lot more engagement and outrage online than in person.” In reference to the protests’ attendance, they added, “I was personally frustrated because I have heard a lot of people talking about coming to the protest, but we did not see that many people there each day.”
Impactful activism warrants time to prepare and think. Ironically, our compassion and emotions may impede us. It’s possible to argue that activism is only effective through immediate action; yet, such a swift response often prompts performative activism to take form, slowing down the potential for real change.
Much of our activism was first presented on Instagram, which doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing; social media is an efficient way to spread information and open a public discourse. However, when it becomes a one-off action, a trend, it’s difficult to claim that we’re genuine in our support. We need to back our online personas with an in-person presence, or, at the very least, continue to engage in information regarding the incident. Performative activism isn’t posting on social media. It’s doing so without attending a protest or supporting CAFSA. It’s attending a party at Castle after you’ve spoken out against it. It’s sharing information with no intention to follow through. It’s turning our back on constructive conversations. At this moment, we are far from who we think we are.
We must ensure that our rhetoric is no longer performative. Ramos said, “Reposting it on social media has become something that doesn't actually do anything anymore because everyone just does it because they think that that's what society wants them to do.” Though the spread of information is important, he’s right — it does little in terms of establishing impactful, tangible action, and this is a dialogue that needs to persist.
As of mid-November, Penn has yet to share any details about the incident or investigation. Where is the voice of our administration? More importantly, where are the voices of our peers? Why have we abandoned the protests and flyers that we so heavily relied on after the story first came to light? Again, over 5,000 of us have signed a petition to evict Psi Upsilon from Castle to date — what has come out of it? Greek life has perpetuated racism and rape culture for decades: It’s rampant with misogyny and classism, and Castle itself has a complicated history. Yet, it continues to thrive. Does our activism mean anything if it isn’t persistent?
After the Castle protests, Instagram engagement toward CAFSA decreased from 420 likes to a new low of 17 on their most recent infographic, which is perplexing considering the initial ferocity of the student body in response to the incident. Have we already forgotten? It’s vital to remember that an alleged assault, racially motivated no less, is not something that you should use to boost your image. Activism is not meant to be self-serving. Continued action is necessary, and no, social media likes don’t necessarily indicate a lack of student engagement with an issue — especially those who take a quieter approach to activism. Nevertheless, it does point to a poignant lack of sustained interest from many.
Our activism should not be contained to Instagram. Have any of the victim’s demands truly been met? It’s easy to argue that performative activism isn’t inherently bad (it can be turned into real activism); however it’s a dangerous trend, especially when the discussion stalls after a week. Instead of reposting statistics, sign the CAFSA Community Coalition Form, urge your clubs to join the club Coalition, join their leadership — call the administration and express your disappointment. Continue to walk out. It can be hard to create real change on campus; however, the fact that frat culture has been an issue for so long without much change just goes to show how most activism related to it has been performative by nature — it persists because we let it. We cannot abolish a culture that we are actively participating in: We need to work to end Penn’s legacy of performative activism.
KAYLA COTTER is a College first year from Manalapan, N.J. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org. EMILY NG is a College first year from Brooklyn, N.Y. Her email is email@example.com.