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Ethnic Studies Faculty and Student Response to UCSD Campus Crisis Precipitated by the Event Dubbed the “Compton Cookout”

We welcome all thoughtful, informed and reasoned comments to our departmental statements. The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the views of all faculty and graduate students at the Department of Ethnic Studies, the Regents of the University of California, or the University of California, San Diego. Please post your comments below.

As faculty and graduate students in the Ethnic Studies Department at UC-San Diego, we unequivocally condemn the February 15th off-campus party, dubbed the “Compton Cookout,” as an example of racist, classist and misogynist stereotyping that degrades Black people through disparaging representations of so-called “African American culture.”  Like similar events thrown on college and university campuses across the United States, this “theme party” in one quick, broad stroke reduced the complex lived experience of a heterogeneous racialized community to a caricatured depiction of cultural deviancy. All the more troubling, this particular themed party was intentionally organized to mock ongoing celebrations of African American History month in the U.S. and specifically here at UC San Diego.

This “monstrosity” (as some of the organizers called it) has a violent and racist history that began with blackface minstrel shows in the U.S., starting in the early 19th century, heightening with popularity during the Abolition Movement, and extending into 20th century theater and film.  Both blackface minstrel performances and parties such as the “Compton Cookout” reinforce and magnify existing material and discursive structures of Black oppression, while denying Black people any sense of humanity, negating not only the actual lives that exist behind these caricatured performances but the structural conditions that shape Black life in the US.  Far from celebrating Black history, events such as this one are marked celebrations of the play of power characteristic of whiteness in general and white minstrelsy in particular: the ability to move in and move out of a racially produced space at will; the capacity to embody a presumed deviance without actually ever becoming or being it; the privilege to revel in this raced and gendered alterity without ever having to question or encounter the systemic and epistemic violence that produces hierarchies of difference in the first place. Moreover, like their blackface minstrel predecessors, the organizers and attendees of the “Compton Cookout” demonstrate the inextricability of performances of white mastery over Black bodies from structures of patriarchy: by instructing their women ‘guests’ on how to dress (“wear cheap clothes”), behave (“start fights and drama”), and speak (“have a very limited vocabulary”), these young men not only paint a degrading and dehumanizing picture of African American women as so-called “ghetto chicks,” but offer a recipe for the objectification of all women—made permissible, once again, through the appropriation of blackness.

Contrary to what some have claimed, the recent “Compton Cookout” is neither an aberration nor unique. Rather, it is best understood as part of a broader social reality that despite the celebrated juridical/political advancements achieved by people of color in the United States through centuries of struggle, full racial justice remains a goal, rather than accomplishment. The same month that we witnessed Barack Obama sworn in as the first Black man to reach the White House, the number of Black men imprisoned in the United States reached one million. Meanwhile, the backlash against affirmative action in public institutions that began a decade ago in the state of California has reduced representation of people of color in institutions ranging from the University of Michigan Law School to the New Haven Fire Department to public school districts across the US, making the criminal justice system the only state institution in which African Americans are still sought after and included in large numbers. Indeed, the unacknowledged slow reversal of the promise of Brown v. Board of Education is evident here at UCSD: Black students currently represent less than 2% of the undergraduate population here at UC San Diego, a percentage that is scarcely better than the 1% representation of Black people among faculty and academic professionals. Given this, despite the protestations of its organizers, events like the “Compton Cookout” are never “harmless fun.”  Rather, they are the cultural matter through which raced and gendered hierarchies of difference are reproduced and instantiated; they are the venues in which white privilege is rationalized through the representation of African Americans as less civilized and more deviant, less human and more animalistic, less deserving of education and more worthy of satire.

Indeed, the “Compton Cookout” demonstrates that as a country and as a campus, we have yet to create the institutional systems that would make places of higher education more accessible to and less alienating for Black students and other students of color. Indeed, if recent events on campus are any indicator, as a campus, we have only begun the work of recognizing our own complicities in the problem at hand. As scholars of race and power in the United States and transnationally, the faculty and students of the Ethnic Studies Department and our affiliates are well-versed in the history and intersectional analysis of events such as this recent party, and the continuing raced, classed, and gendered structures of inequality that it represents. We remain ready to assist the administration in not only developing “teach-ins” but also institutional policies capable of radically changing the campus climate within which such events can be conceived of as ‘harmless’ and be carried out unchecked.

In that vein, the Department of Ethnic Studies calls upon the University of California, San Diego administration to view this event not as an incident of wayward students violating the principles of UCSD’s community, but rather to engage this event as a moment to re-think the logic of institutional accountability: who is responsible for creating a campus climate of permissibility around racial/gendered representational violence, and who pays the price of such a climate? We applaud the intellectual, political, and emotional work that is already being done by students, faculty and staff around the party and the broader issues it points to; at the same time, we recognize that moments such as this place additional and exhausting demands on a limited number of bodies, in part due to administrative expectations that students, faculty, and staff of color will serve as educators and crisis-managers, counselors and public representatives of the University. We therefore call upon the administration to model institutional accountability at the highest levels by taking concrete steps to make UCSD the educational and social environment promised by the Principles of Community—a university that is not only accessible to and affordable for African Americans and other students of color, but one in which students of color can feel valued, safe, and protected.

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