NEW YORK – Days before graduation, when young men and women are dreaming of starting a new life full of promise, an ugly controversy over alleged racism and homophobia has clouded the future of 18 students, including an Indian American, at Syracuse University.
A popular fraternity for engineering students, Theta Tau, was expelled in the aftermath of a controversial video that surfaced on social media. Some students of the fraternity have filed a lawsuit against the upstate New York-based university to revoke their suspension, be allowed to graduate.
Theta Tau, started nearly 114 years ago, is the oldest and largest fraternity for engineers, with chapters across the country, and members around the world, according to their website.
The six-minute-long video, from March of this year, is undoubtedly disturbing to watch for those uninitiated to raw satire and humor, crass as it may be. The ‘roast’, as the fraternity termed it, is replete with Black, Latino and Jewish bashing, ridiculing and sexually berating a physically handicapped male in a wheelchair, and some weird sexual postures and innuendoes, that can only bring mirth to some people of a certain age-group.
At one point in the video, an Indian American male acts as a dog, simulating copulation with a ‘master’ who says, “I’m an untouchable.” It’s not clear whether it’s a riff on casteism in India, or ribald humor.
There was widespread condemnation, and swift action by the university dominated by a white student body.
The local news outlet, Syracuse.com published an editorial, headlined, ‘Confront Syracuse University frat’s racist speech; question climate that fed it,’ in which they came down hard on the video by the fraternity, writing: “Their hateful speech must be challenged. The young men who participated in making the videos, and those who merely stood by, must own their lack of character, empathy and humanity. They deserve whatever punishment is prescribed by the university’s code of conduct, up to and including expulsion. In our view, anyone who wrote, performed or filmed the videos ought to be expelled.”
In response, the Theta Tau fraternity, which feared the worst for their members apart from their expelled status, clarified, with this statement: “Did the involved members do stupid things? Of course. Are they racist, sexist, anti-gay criminals? Not even close, and indeed the context of the event shows just the opposite. Should they be expelled for making fun of their fraternity brothers in a satirical, extreme, offensive manner? Absolutely not.”
They pointed out that almost half of Theta Tau’s members identify as part of a minority or ethnic group. Tau Chapter of Theta Tau is roughly twice as diverse as the Syracuse University undergraduate engineering student body. This also is true of Theta Tau nationally.
Of the controversial video – which was meant only for members when it was performed, they wrote: “A black member used parody to roast fellow black members and a Jewish member pretended to slander Jews. The videos, albeit offensive, were indisputably a satirical performance and clearly intended by all those present to lampoon the invidious characters and attitudes portrayed by the participants. The skits were performed for the eyes of Theta Tau members only who would understand the context of the roast.”
The fraternity also recalled that in 2005, a comedy show entitled “Over the Hill,” broadcast on HillTV, the student-run television station on campus, and modeled after ‘The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,’ was removed from the station’s website due to concerns about offensive content.
“Specifically, while the premise of the parody news show was to satirize campus and national news, episodes contained potentially offensive jokes about black people, Indians (both American and those from India), women, date rape, mentally retarded individuals, eating disorders and even lynching,” it wrote.
Then, unlike now, though HillTV was disbanded by the university, no charges of racism were leveled against the students of the satirical news show.
The fraternity wrote, in defense of the video, and to point out hypocrisy of Syracuse University: “Indeed, rappers such as Gucci Mane, who performed over the weekend at SU’s MayFest, discuss rape graphically and violently in their lyrics. Comedians like Hasan Minhaj, who was invited to SU last fall, lampoons racist attitudes with skits entitled “Punish a Muslim Day.” Yet, there is a collective excusal of any offense by these entertainers as merely performance. The same standard should be applied here to the “stupid,” but not intentionally offensive conduct by Theta Tau members.”
Which brings up the question: is Syracuse University overreacting to satire? And if not so, then why are shows like ‘Saturday Night Live’ which use a widely watched platform to hurl lavish ridicule, including on President Trump, be tolerated?
Recent days have brought to the fore disturbing cases of alleged racism in the US. Unlike satire in a private video by students who tried to create mirth.
Two black men were arrested for ‘trespassing’ at a Starbucks in Philadelphia, after they refused to order anything to eat or drink. A black former tennis umpire, Anthony Nimmons, has alleged in a lawsuit that he was forced out of the sport because he complained about racial bias, including that another umpire called him a “monkey.”
Fact of the matter is that the US is increasingly intolerant of satire, as immigrant and foreign bashing has become rampant, fanned in intensity by social media and its myriad interpretations. There’s fear and loathing attached too; legal ramifications have mushroomed.
Satire when labeled satire is deemed ok though; laughed and enjoyed in comedy clubs, sitting at home munching popcorn. Satire, when leaked, like in the case of the video by Theta Tau, is deemed offensive. And some students who may not have a racist bone in their body, made scapegoats for trying to be comedy stars for a few minutes in their own little, unglamorous world. Before they turn to real life for decades, and carve out a living in a 9-5 job.
Maybe, it’s all in the labeling.
(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him: firstname.lastname@example.org Follow him on Twitter @SujeetRajan1)