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Fraternity and sorority accused of blackface, racial stereotypes at a ‘Kanye Western’ party

Students walk near Royce Hall at the University of California at Los Angeles. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

A fraternity-sorority party sparked protests at the University of California at Los Angeles after some students said the theme and costumes were racist, such as guests who apparently smeared charcoal on their foreheads to darken their faces.

The local chapter of Sigma Phi Epsilon and the sorority Alpha Phi co-hosted the “Kanye Western”-themed party Tuesday night, with costumes playing off Kanye West and his wife, Kim Kardashian, the Daily Bruin reported. Leaders of student groups, such as the Afrikan Student Union, demanded a response from the university, noting the party was held during “Black Bruin Welcome Week.”

The story spread quickly.

People were quick to argue online: Was it mocking L.A. celebrity culture, or black people? Was it just an awkward costume party, or was it the latest racist affront by a fraternity?

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Some brushed it off, saying they hadn’t seen blackface, but they had seen photos of students who used charcoal to draw Kanye-esque goatees on their faces. They pointed out that some students dressed as old-Western cowboys panning for gold.  They said a photo of a white woman flaunting a dramatically bolstered seat of her pants was mocking Kim Kardashian, not black people. And the “Keezy” on one shirt and floppy sweatshirts suggested at least some guests were playing off his clothing line, which just got drilled by critics a couple of weeks ago.

The strongest reaction was outrage.

The Afrikan Student Union released a statement saying people had seen guests who had used brown paint and charcoal to darken their faces and worn stereotypes of black culture such as durags and gold chains. “… the black experience at UCLA is an ongoing struggle,” the statement said. “Black students comprise 4% of the UCLA student body,” and many students are dismissed each year. “We as a people feel uncomfortable at our own institution because it almost encourages a campus climate that disrespects and stereotypes communities of color.”

Tomorrow ASU is leading an action in response to the current racial incident. We are meeting at the Bruin Bear. Wear all…

Posted by Afrikan Student Union at UCLA on Thursday, October 8, 2015

Leaders of the Sigma Phi Epsilon chapter and the national headquarters of Alpha Phi did not immediately return a request for comment Thursday.

Beaux Carriere, a spokesman for the national office of Sigma Phi Epsilon, in a statement said the office is “investigating claims that its UCLA chapter hosted an inappropriately themed social event with Alpha Phi Sorority. The Fraternity is aware of images of female guests dressed in offensive and racially insensitive outfits.

“We have asked our UCLA chapter to temporarily suspend activities and work with our office and university staff to determine the facts of the event and the appropriate path forward.

“Building diverse and inclusive communities is core to our identity as an organization, and we have zero tolerance for racist behavior.” The fraternity will work with the university and the community to investigate the claims and hold students accountable for any inappropriate behavior, he said.

“We are concerned about these allegations,” a spokesperson for UCLA offered in a statement, “and earnestly working to gather information about what occurred, talking to all those involved.

“While we do not yet have all the facts, the alleged behavior is inconsistent with good judgment as well as our principles of community.

“We remind students that while they are free to celebrate in ways that draw on popular culture, their specific choices can cause harm and pain to fellow members of their community.

“Put simply: Just because you can do something does not mean you should.”