Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Campus PC follies: the ongoing saga

A fraternity was told it was ‘appropriat­ing culture.’ Administra­tors won’t say which.

- Catherine Rampell Catherine Rampell is an opinion columnist at The Washington Post (Twitter @crampell).

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 around 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 Mr. 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,” Mr. 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 middle-class 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 upper-middle-class or 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 crowd-sourced 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 upper-middle 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, Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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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