Today’s les­son on cam­pus: ‘Con­tro­versy preven­tion’

The Washington Post - - WASHINGTON FORUM - CATHER­INE RAMPELL

Don’t blame col­lege stu­dents for their hos­til­ity to free ex­pres­sion. The fault ul­ti­mately lies with cowardly school ad­min­is­tra­tions, who so of­ten cave to stu­dent demands for cen­sor­ship. Or as some now pre­fer to call it, “em­pow­er­ing a cul­ture of con­tro­versy preven­tion.”

Those are the ac­tual, Or­wellian words of an of­fi­cial at Amer­i­can Univer­sity.

Sev­eral weeks ago, a fra­ter­nity at AU, Sigma Al­pha Mu, be­gan plan­ning a fundraiser for a veterans’ or­ga­ni­za­tion. Stu­dent groups of­ten cen­ter fundrais­ers on ath­letic tour­na­ments, fra­ter­nity pres­i­dent and sopho­more Rocco Cimino told me, but all the pop­u­lar sports had al­ready been claimed. The fra­ter­nity mem­bers de­cided to go with ... badminton.

To jazz things up, they called their event “Bad(minton) and Bou­jee.” It’s a pun on “Bad and Bou­jee,” a pop­u­lar rap song by the group Mi­gos about be­ing newly rich and hang­ing with materialistic women. Sigma Al­pha Mu reg­is­tered the fundraiser on Amer­i­can’s online sched­ul­ing sys­tem, re­quired for all cam­pus events.

A few days later Cimino got a strange email from the school.

Colin Gerker, as­sis­tant di­rec­tor of fra­ter­nity and sorority life, said the word “bou­jee” might be crit­i­cized for “ap­pro­pri­at­ing cul­ture.” He would not ap­prove the event un­less the fra­ter­nity changed the name.

“I want to con­tinue em­pow­er­ing a cul­ture of con­tro­versy preven­tion among [Greek] groups,” Gerker wrote. He ad­vised them to “stay away from gen­der, cul­ture, or sex­u­al­ity for the­matic ti­tles.” The stu­dents were per­plexed. A brief et­y­mol­ogy, for those not fa­mil­iar with “bou­jee”: The word orig­i­nates with the Latin for cas­tle or for­ti­fied town, “bur­gus.” This evolved into the French “bour­geois,” for peo­ple who live in town rather than the coun­try­side. Town dwellers were more likely to en­gage in com­merce and crafts­man­ship, and so rose over time to achieve mid­dle­class in­comes. That’s why Karl Marx later used the term to de­ri­sively refer to the class that up­held cap­i­tal­ism. Over time, “bour­geois” mor­phed into a more generic de­scrip­tion of mid­dle-class (and even­tu­ally up­per-mid­dle-class) ma­te­ri­al­ism and ob­ses­sion with re­spectabil­ity.

More re­cently, “bour­geois” was short­ened to the col­lo­quial “bourgie,” al­ter­nately spelled “bougie” or “bou­jee,” used dis­dain­fully to de­scribe up­per­mid­dleor high-end tastes (driv­ing your Prius to Trader Joe’s af­ter yoga class, for ex­am­ple). The “bou­jee” vari­a­tion is com­mon when re­fer­ring to mid­dle-class or up­wardly mo­bile blacks, as in the Mi­gos song. That’s hardly this spell­ing’s exclusive us­age, though, as is ev­i­dent from its en­tries in the crowd­sourced slang glos­sary Ur­ban Dic­tio­nary.

So, in a way, “bou­jee” is in­deed an ap­pro­pri­a­tion — or rather an ap­pro­pri­a­tion of an ap­pro­pri­a­tion of an ap­pro­pri­a­tion. That’s how lan­guage works. It’s fluid, evolv­ing, con­stantly tak­ing from other tongues, di­alects and us­ages.

When the fra­ter­nity was ac­cused of “ap­pro­pri­at­ing cul­ture,” the ob­vi­ous ques­tion was: Which cul­ture? Latin? French? Marx­ist? Ur­ban hip-hop? Maybe their own? Af­ter all, if you’re won­der­ing who best epit­o­mizes today’s up­per­mid­dle class, bear in mind that th­ese are col­lege kids whose par­ents pay ex­tra money on top of tu­ition to throw par­ties.

Fig­ur­ing the ad­min­is­tra­tion mis­un­der­stood what “bou­jee” meant, Cimino chal­lenged the school’s ul­ti­ma­tum. He ex­plained the term, and added that this was just a reg­u­lar sports tour­na­ment with a punny name. Other­wise it had noth­ing to do with the con­tent of a rap song, in case that was the con­cern.

But Gerker ceded no ground, re­it­er­at­ing that the fra­ter­nity was “ap­pro­pri­at­ing cul­ture,” and added that in the in­terim he had re­ceived “mul­ti­ple com­plaints” about the event ti­tle.

“I am await­ing a re­sponse from some folks on how they want to move for­ward with their com­plaints,” he wrote.

Still puz­zled, the fra­ter­nity asked whether they could see the com­plaints lodged against them, but they never heard back. With time run­ning short, they can­celed the event and posted a GoFundMe page in­stead.

I reached out to the school to ask for clar­i­fi­ca­tion.

A spokes­woman sent a state­ment about how the “se­quence of events did not go ac­cord­ing to our nor­mal process for work­ing with stu­dent or­ga­ni­za­tions.” She said the ad­min­is­tra­tion should not have pro­hib­ited the fundraiser and that it usu­ally fo­cuses on “coach­ing” stu­dents about how to pro­ceed when an event “could have a neg­a­tive im­pact and un­in­tended con­se­quences on cam­pus.” But I never got an an­swer to what was so ob­jec­tion­able about the event ti­tle in the first place.

Nei­ther did the stu­dents. In a meet­ing Thurs­day, an­other ad­min­is­tra­tor apol­o­gized to Cimino for not fol­low­ing pro­to­col and pledged to help pro­mote a fu­ture event for the veterans’ group. Still no ex­pla­na­tion, though, of the “cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion” ac­cu­sa­tions be­yond some­thing like “we thought it could be con­tro­ver­sial.”

Schools were once charged with ed­u­cat­ing, chal­leng­ing and set­ting an ex­am­ple for their wards. Today’s pupils must set­tle for con­tro­versy-preven­tion em­pow­er­ment in­stead.

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