A “ghetto”-themed party hosted at a beach house of Fairfield University students Saturday night has stimulated a conversation about racism that has attracted the attention of students across the Fairfield community as well as national news outlets.

The party spurred backlash on social media from students both for and against the party, along with discussions in classes and an emergency Senate meeting by the Fairfield University Student Association in preparation for a student race dialogue open forum that will take place on Wednesday, Feb. 24 at 8pm.

“I was a bit shocked, having been involved in some of the racial justice work that has been happening over the past year,” said Melissa Quan, director of the Office of Service Learning and the associate director of the Center for Faith and Public Life, when she heard about the party. “I just felt we were making some progress in some positive directions, so it was a bit of a shock to see this happen. I kind of expected greater awareness that would have led to students not making the choice they made.”

Quan’s sentiments were echoed by Johanna Garvey, associate professor of English, who learned of the occurrence on Sunday from her students in the Black Lives Matter course that she teaches. “I would say [I felt] shock and disbelief, next to weariness and disappointment … but also the sense of deja-vu. I think the [student] response to [this] event itself was worse than others that preceded it.” Last November, there was a racial equality demonstration, and in December 2014 there was a “die-in” in the DiMenna-Nyselius Library in response to the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Tamir Rice.

Presently, the social media attention that this event has received falls on both ends of the spectrum. Associate Professor of Philosophy Kris Sealey said that “the responses … condemning the event, were not surprising … then there were other responses that claimed to be confused by the outrage, and even made fun of the outrage. This also didn’t surprise me, because I know that, without access to historical context, it’s impossible to understand why organizing a ‘ghetto party’ would be a gross and misguided misuse of one’s freedom.”

Freshman Zaid Aparicio commented, “At first, I thought it was just a bunch of college kids having a theme party that could have been an ‘80s party or it could have been a preppy theme party. But then I thought maybe it could have been offensive to some people, and I understand their perspective and where they are coming from. But at the same time, you have to look if [the people who threw the party] had the intention of making fun of people. I think they just wanted to have fun, but at the same time I can see where it degrades people and their culture and their background.”

Carolyn Scaglione ‘16, director of marketing for FUSA, agreed and said, “I think the most disappointing thing was the reaction about it. I don’t know if the party itself was meant to be malicious, but people’s reactions on social media were extremely disappointing to see that students at our school that has such strong Jesuit values could ever think like that.”

Other students did not agree that the party was as big a deal as it was made out to be.

Freshman John Conmy said, “It’s just stupid college kids throwing a party; I don’t think it’s anything worth getting all worked up about. It’s not like they were hurting anyone or trying to make anyone feel uncomfortable. They just thought it would be a fun, silly idea for a party.”

Quan recognizes that while this an opinion that can be held, “The hope would be that when individuals recognize that someone has been hurt by something, that might cause you to think a bit more critically and take on a different perspective and that doesn’t seem to be what’s happening.”

Freshman Sarah Gedeon, an active member of Racial Justice is Social Justice, was one of the many students outraged by the event and some of the responses on social media.

“This is not something that is a joke; this is serious. And it’s a shame that people are not addressing it like they should, especially if you are from the so-called ghetto community, because there are a lot of people who grew up in that type of lifestyle who didn’t ask to be in that life. So why are you making a joke out of that?”

Responses to the event on social media have garnered so much attention that they have been picked up by national news outlets such as The New York Times, USA Today, FOX News affiliates and The Washington Post. Quan was “surprised” and added that “it’s really sad that something like this is what makes it to national news because as much as I do believe that there are things within our culture that we need to address and to take seriously, I also feel sad that this is the picture that people are going to have [of the University], because I don’t think it is who we are. I think that one thing that we need to do is recognize that is wasn’t an ‘incident,’ it’s a symptom of deeper challenges that exist in Fairfield and within the larger society.”

Quan and Garvey are two of the faculty members doing their best to support and guide members of the Fairfield community who are looking for assistance. “I’m just trying to listen and to be in tune to the support students need, particularly the students of color who need support right now, and the students who are working for changes,” said Quan.  

In response to the event, official responses from President Jeffrey P. von Arx, S.J. and Student Body President Anif McDonald ’16 were emailed to students on Monday. In McDonald’s email, it was announced that the race dialogue open forum would take place on Wednesday.

According to McDonald, this will be where “students can talk about dialogue, about race and more importantly, what this party meant to them and how it affected them … We want to have people speak up and talk about why they were hurt and if they weren’t hurt, just come and spread your opinion as to why you think that this wasn’t an issue … We just want to hear both sides and want to make sure that everyone feels comfortable again.”

McDonald urged students to talk with their peers in order to overcome the racial issues facing the campus now.

“It is crucial that we all look up what White privilege is and how it functions explicitly and implicitly on this campus,” McDonald said in his statement. “I urge all of you who have something to say to actually speak up.”

Von Arx’s statement informed students that the Office of Student Diversity and Multicultural Affairs will be open for extended hours this week and that “faculty and administrators are planning a dialogue which will be open to all members of the University community,” in addition to the student forum scheduled for Wednesday.

I think the hardest [thing] is really to admit that there is a deep serious problem and I think that has to come from a wide range of constituencies on campus; I don’t think it’s just a top-down thing. It’s important to have messages from the upper administration, but I think it’s great that FUSA is holding a forum,” Garvey said.

In terms of moving forward, the University has been working to change and raise awareness about racial inequality. “We have had institutional support for curricular changes like the Black Lives Matter course,” said Sealey. “In general, there’s critical mass of students, staff and faculty committed to the hard work that needs to be done to make Fairfield a place where all can learn and thrive. But this is truly hard work, and often, expensive work (in terms of time and money). I hope that our institution now sees the urgency in committing the time and money needed to address this challenge.”

“Black Lives Matter is all about addressing these issues in our culture … it’s just woven into the class in very constructive multifaceted ways,” said Garvey. “[The students] are there because they want to be there; they want to talk about what they’re learning about, and they want to be activists for change… both on campus and beyond. It’s unfortunate that [this event] put everything the course is addressing right in their faces, but I think it’s taking that opportunity and trying to make lemonade out of lemons.”

Garvey added that she believes empathy is the key to understanding what others are going through. “I think it’s really important to listen, to talk to others, to have an open mind [and] to find empathy … Empathy to me, it’s a really important goal. It’s not easy. A part of the student response would be, I think, saying that for everybody, ‘this is our community, this is my community, it’s your community; we’re all part of this community and we need to own it and shape it together.’”

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