Variety Show skit sparks campus debate on free speech
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An open letter penned by three members of the Latinx community has sparked a campuswide debate about free speech and political correctness that has affected Greek life as well as the campus community at large.
The letter, which was sent to various student groups for signatures of support via email, was written in reaction to Phi Delta Theta’s Variety Show skit, which was performed on April 8 as part of 2016’s “Be Your Own Hero”-themed Greek Week. The skit was a “Back to the Future III” parody in which “Marty McPhi” travels back in time to the Old West. There he finds that the town has been taken over by a group of outlaws called the “Case del Spartans.”
The brothers playing the outlaws dressed in serapes and sombreros and performed a dance routine that the open letter called “insensitive.” In addition, many of the brothers used accents, and one quoted a Spanish Pitbull lyric, “oye Mami, si yo fuera un mosquito, donde tu quiere que te muerda,” from the song “Maldito Alcohol,” which roughly translates to “hey girl, if I were a mosquito, where would you want me to bite you?”
The outlaws and the town sheriff’s posse have a dance off, which ends with them realizing that they should all get along. The skit ended with a performance of “We’re All In This Together” from “High School Musical.”
A full script of the performance is available here.
Some students present at Variety Show were concerned by the skit and initiated a group text between themselves and other members of the Latinx community not at the show.
“One of the students said, ‘was that funny or offensive?’” said one of the authors of the letter who was not present at Variety Show and wished to remain unnamed. For the sake of clarity, we will be referring to him as John throughout the story.
“A lot of people in the audience that night did see that and were like, ‘okay, this probably isn’t going to go over well,’ but no one stood up to say anything,” said John. “Worst of all is the staff on the panel, who decided that it wasn’t problematic either. I think that the time to step in is as soon as there’s a potential for something to be offensive or be biased.”
“A lot of people are pointing out that it wasn’t just Phi Delt that said something offensive, others did too,” he continued. “Just because a bunch of people did it doesn’t mean we should excuse it.… If this is a Greek-wide thing or fraternity-wide thing, I don’t feel comfortable with that.”
As per Greek Week rules, all Variety Show scripts go through screening by the Rules and Events Chair of the Greek Week Steering Committee before the performance.
“After reviewing the script more than once we determined that no changes were necessary,” said Monica Blanco, Steering committee chair. Chapters are not required to send in any information about their costumes, props or the accents they will be using for approval.
“We trust the members of our Greek community to make appropriate judgements about how they will perform their work,” said Blanco. “The committee reviews the handbook every year, so this is an item that we will explore for next year.”
A group of around 15 students met to discuss what a possible response to the skit could be, but there were disagreements within the group in terms of what they were comfortable with. The open letter was penned by three students from this group, who identified themselves as members of the Latinx community, a non-gendered term referring to the Latino community.
“Some students felt that it was over the line, some felt it was excusable,” said John. “But one of the students that felt more strongly shared it with a group of other Latino students and said ‘this really bothered me, I want to say something.’”
According to Ren Weeden, a member of the Undergraduate Diversity Collaborative’s (UDC) External Communications Committee, the executive committee of La Alianza, a Latino student organization on campus, voted on whether or not to endorse the letter and decided that they would not sign it.
“They felt that the letter polarized the Hispanic community,” he said. “There’s different people that may have viewed the skit as not offensive while others may have. They didn’t want to disqualify any specific person’s experience or feelings.”
UDC declined to comment on this story, as conversations are still ongoing.
As of press time, the letter had 154 signatures.
The letter called for an apology from Phi Delt, as well as participation from all their members in diversity education and training. It also called for their elimination from contention for Greek Week awards. The fraternity placed sixth in Variety Show and first in Greek Week overall.
The chapter released a statement on April 12, saying that they “recognize the issue at hand, and sincerely apologize to anyone who may have been offended by the insensitive components of our skit. The point of our skit was to promote cultural inclusion and identify that we all must come together. As a chapter whose members come from various cultural backgrounds, we in no way intended to cause this confusion or target specific groups. We see this as a learning experience for our chapter, as well as the CWRU community as a whole, and we have spoken with other groups on campus to address this issue. We are working to add additional education regarding the matter.”
The Observer reached out to multiple Phi Delt brothers who declined to comment further on the issue.
Phi Delt nationals are currently investigating the chapter, in conjunction with CWRU officials and local alumni.
“We are concerned by the actions of the chapter,” said Mike Wahba, director of chapter services, in a statement. “Phi Delta Theta is a values-based organization and the lack of judgment associated with this poor decision indicates a disconnect from those same values. Our goal is to determine the organizational issues associated with this misguided decision and to provide both punitive and educational action that will promote reform.”
The letter also called for apologies from the Greek Life Office (GLO), Greek Week Steering Committee and Variety Show judging panel. The judging panel for Variety Show was made up of nine faculty and staff members, including members of the GLO, the Office of Student Activities and Leadership, Alumni Relations, the Office of First-Year Experience and Family Programs, the Office of Residence Life and the College of Arts and Sciences. None of the judges returned a request for comment as of press time.
In addition, the letter called for an investigation into how the skit was approved, as well as a meeting with the GLO to discuss future diversity initiatives.
“Greek life is very exclusive in the sense that during recruitment you have to audition, say I’m good enough, and then the group decides whether they like you enough to let you in,” said John. “It’s a who is in, who is out dynamic, which means if there’s problematic discourse within a group, no one will challenge it because the only people being let in are those that think alike, who are willing to accept some of that negative rhetoric.”
The letter asked that the parties reply by April 13 at 3 p.m., but as of press time, the letter authors had not heard back from any of these parties.
Interfraternity Congress (IFC) President Will Oldham and Panhellenic Council (PHC) President Gina Belli sent an email to the entire Greek community, also published in The Observer, responding to the letter.
“To the Greek Life community, regardless of your beliefs, backgrounds or ideologies, we ask that you and the larger CWRU community use this time as an opportunity to start a meaningful dialogue,” the email read. “Whether or not you agree with the sentiments expressed in the open letter we must, as a community, recognize that there are real people, with real experiences, who feel threatened by these events or the possibility of retaliation. It is therefore not a time to pick sides, be incendiary on social media, or be dismissive of other perspectives. We ask our Greek community, and the larger CWRU community, to recognize this moment as a time to listen deeply, and be willing to be changed by what we hear. Do not let frustration or confusion bring your voices to dominate others, and do not let fear or misunderstanding keep your voices silent. Instead, reach out to members of your communities to start and continue meaningful conversations.”
The Latinx students’ letter and the campus reaction has been picked up by numerous news outlets, including Fox 8 Cleveland and Cleveland.com. John is unsure of how the media outlets got the letter, saying that the original authors did not send it to news organizations.
“In my opinion, this incident raised issues broader than just a single fraternity, broader than fraternities, broader than just Greek life,” said John. “I want to see an awareness of education surrounding what cultural appropriation, bias, racism, sexism, what those mean. I think we need a far better understanding campus-wide than we have now.”
University president Barbara R. Snyder sent an email to the university community on Tuesday night regarding the skit, calling for students to “consider carefully the implications of that incident and its lessons regarding the work still to be done on diversity and inclusion” and “embrace the opportunity to share perspectives and enhance understanding within our campus community.”
“My email and all of my remarks have been talking about the importance of dialogue, talking to each other, listening to each other,” said Snyder in an interview with The Observer. “That does not mean that I am trying to prohibit anybody from speaking his or her mind. I also want to speak my mind about what I think is important and what our values are.”
Snyder, who was not present at Variety Show and has not seen the skit, learned of the letter on Monday night at a Sustained Dialogue meeting. Sustained Dialogue, a program led by the Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA), holds frequent meetings, but this particular one was an end-of-year meeting to give presentations on the progress made on a number of diversity and inclusion issues over this year. The skit was not initially on the agenda to be discussed, but one group gave their time so that the issue could be examined. Following the meeting and the campus-wide reaction on social media, Snyder decided to draft an email to the community.
“I just wanted to acknowledge that there were some things said on social media that were unkind,” said Snyder. “It’s important when we disagree to remind ourselves to be respectful of other people in the community. I always regret it when we see examples of that not happening.”
Snyder’s email stated that members of Phi Delt would be meeting on Tuesday with members of the Latinx community and OMA to discuss the skit. According to John, none of the letter’s authors were included in this meeting.
“The past few days have provided a rich learning experience for the entire campus,” said Vice President for Student Affairs Lou Stark. “We have read and heard multiple perspectives regarding the skit, people’s responses to it and the additional debates that have followed…. I am confident we will see many more conversations in the days, weeks and months to come, and that our campus community will be stronger for them.”
Snyder and Stark will also meet with representatives from Phi Delt on Thursday to discuss further steps.
“I think the important thing to keep in mind is that people on campus are using this as an opportunity to engage meaningfully with each other,” said Snyder. “The fraternity and the students who are concerned about it are talking to each other, which is great. Lots of other students are talking about potential next steps. Not everybody agrees, but exploring diversity of thought is important for our campus.”
Reactions on campus have been mixed, with Yik Yak serving as a controversial outlet for student opinion. Responses ranged from questions over the extent of free speech on college campuses to discussions about political correctness, with some posts including racist or inflammatory dialogue.
“Can we take a joke?” said third-year student Ed Niedoba. “The answer increasingly appears to be no. There is nothing inherently wrong with cultural appropriation, and those who have acted recently like they are somehow better than Phi Delt I feel really need a wake up call. Every day each of us and our organizations do things that are going to be considered offensive to some. And those people are fully entitled to feel that way because feelings are subjective. The problem comes when we try to objectively evaluate something that is subjective. I think it was likely only a matter of time before an event like this occurred given the Greek Life Office’s resistance to focus on diversity.”
Fourth-year student Felipe Gomez del Campo felt the letter was an overreaction to the sketch.
“I think an error in judgement was made by not dealing with the issue on an individual level and instead engaging on an organizational level with the presupposition that some individuals could speak on behalf of the entire community,” he said. “The best course of action now is for both sides to acknowledge their mistakes and put this issue to bed.”
“I don’t think any of this bickering actually advances the Latino cause,” he added. “In my opinion, the best way to deal with misrepresentations of our culture is to be accurate representations of ourselves.”
First-year student Prince Ghosh believes that it is too early to pick sides in the argument.
“I believe that the problem within this argument lies in that multiple groups across campus are seeking an objective solution to a subjective problem,” he said. “Every person has their own opinion, and it is not the right of anyone else to tell someone to silence what they believe. Therefore, I think the best thing we can do now is continue dialogue, and continue to educate ourselves while the two main parties at hand reach a conclusion between themselves. I believe that both parties should be respected, and the worst thing we can do as a campus is leave this as an issue unheard and leave people unaware of the progression of events. We do not want this incident to be normalized, but at the same time we don’t want to pin the blame on any one specific group.”
Third-year student Arjun Gopinath, who is the president of Diversity and Inclusion for Greeks, an independent group working with IFC, PHC, the GLO, Student Affairs and OMA, thinks that this incident should be treated as a way to foster dialogue.
“I feel there are two sides,” he said. “One side, which is Phi Delt, who were trying to have fun and present a show using current issues and what’s going on in the media and with the presidential elections … and then the minority group, which has faced a history of cultural appropriation and marginalization.”
Gopinath feels that the backlash against the letter’s authors is “uncalled for” and thinks that it would be most productive for the letter writers and other members of the Latinx community to meet with the fraternity members and voice their concerns.
“In an ideal world where we have appropriate diversity training for chapters and the Greek Life Office and Greek community as a whole are aware of current issues in diversity and inclusion, maybe this wouldn’t have taken place,” he said. “Or if it had, the whole community could get together and discuss the ramifications in a positive manner instead of calling each other names.”