April 20, 2017 at 7:00 AM
Sigma Alpha Mu, a fraternity at American University, was looking to throw a philanthropy event this semester, Rocco Cimino, the chapter's 20-year-old president, said Wednesday. The group ran into a dilemma, though.
"Essentially every sport under the sun, at least every sport we could think of, had been taken by a different Greek organization," said Cimino, a sophomore from Peabody, Mass., who is double majoring in political science and philosophy at American.
It's not as if there are formal rules against doubling up on sports, said Cimino — still, the organization didn't want to do that. So the fraternity did some brainstorming, and someone pitched the idea of a badminton tournament called "Bad(minton) and Boujee."
The event would have been low-cost, said Cimino, and the fraternity thought the name, a play on the hit Migos song "Bad and Boujee," was marketable. But a university official raised concerns about that name, citing cultural appropriation, according to emails provided to The Washington Post. The back-and-forth led to a delay, Cimino said.
Ultimately, "Bad(minton) and Boujee," which was supposed to be held later this month, was canceled.
"Throughout our exchanges, the university took very long to get back to us, and our current email has been sitting for over a week without a response," the fraternity wrote in a Facebook post on Tuesday, announcing its decision. "As such, we have not had time to fundraise or organize the event with its verification in limbo and subsequently decided we had to cancel it."
After developing the idea for the badminton tournament, the fraternity submitted a request to reserve the area on campus where it was planning to hold the event, according to Cimino. But, Cimino said, a few days after the event was announced, Cimino got a note from a university official. Colin Gerker, assistant director of fraternity and sorority life. Gerker sent an email on March 30, saying he suspected "that this event name will be criticized for the use of 'boujee.' "
"I know it's a colloquial term and is popular via Migos, but we have had groups get reamed for appropriating culture before related to situations like this," he wrote.
"Boujee" is an abbreviated slang term that comes from the word "bourgeois."
"Honestly, I just thought it was classic AU," said Cimino, when asked about his reaction to the email. He went back to the chapter and told the brothers they would have to think of something else. But, Cimino said, the other members said that they thought they could try to "reason with" the university, a private school located in Washington, D.C., with about 13,000 students.
Cimino described Sigma Alpha Mu as a Jewish fraternity, with members from around the world. "Overall, we have a higher diversity level than average," he wrote in an email. He said most members were white, but not all were. He also noted that not all members are Jewish, "as we accept anyone."
Cimino responded on April 2, saying that he shared Gerker's email with the fraternity chapter, and "everyone seemed perplexed." He said the name was "inspired" by Migos and was a play on words that incorporated badminton.
He pointed to the Urban Dictionary definition of the word "boujee," and said the name was an attempt to "make the sport of badminton more relatable/intriguing to college students so we can have a higher turnout and donate the proceeds to helping veterans combat their mental health issues." The event itself, he wrote, would not have a "boujee" theme.
"Overall, we do not see how a single word which loosely translates to 'high class' should disqualify our entire event, when the actual title is a celebration of the American Dream and the ability of three young men from one of the most difficult areas to thrive in the country do just that," Cimino wrote. "We also do not understand how there is a 'culture' associated with boujee and how, even if there is, the event is completely unrelated to the name."
Gerker wrote back on April 11, saying that he had received "multiple" complaints about the title of the event. In his response, Cimino asked to see a copy of one of those complaints and said that the event itself would have nothing to do with " 'boujee' culture."
"Furthermore, we don't even understand how 'bourgeoisie' could have a culture of its own," he wrote. "Every instance of cultural appropriation that I can find online is related to ethnicity. Bourgeoisie is an economic status which anyone can theoretically reach or aspire to reach. To call it a culture would go against the entire argument of cultural appropriation, no?"
In an email to The Post, Camille Lepre, assistant vice president of communications at American, said that some students did have concerns about the title but said the university didn't have a policy that would require a group to change it. The situation didn't play out according to the university's "normal process for working with student organizations," she wrote, and American was working to fix it.
"The nature and titles of some events could have negative impact and unintended consequences on campus, and while the university doesn't prohibit them from proceeding, our Office of Campus Life works with the sponsoring student group, educates them on the possible impact on their peers, talks through some options, and allows them to decide how they will proceed," she wrote in an email. "This coaching is part of the student experience."
American officials should have told the fraternity that it was their choice to decide how to proceed on the matter, she said.
"We didn't get it right initially, but we are working toward an amicable outcome for the fraternity," she wrote. "A senior staff member has communicated with the fraternity to clarify the proper coaching role of the university, and the fraternity's right to make its own call and proceed with the event. The fraternity and this staff member will also meet face to face to discuss it further."
Money from the badminton tournament was supposed benefit Armor Down, an organization that aims to help veterans deal with mental health issues. The fraternity started an online fundraising effort for the charity and has raised more than $1,000 since Tuesday.