Cal Poly students express anger, hurt over frat party theme at forum

'Colonial Bros and Nava-Hos' theme criticized by Navajo human rights commission

jhickey@thetribunenews.comNovember 22, 2013 

An entrance to Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo.

JOE JOHNSTON — jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

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A racially diverse group of students and professors took the microphone Friday in front of hundreds of their peers to express anger, sadness and, in one case, remorse for a “Colonial Bros and Nava-Hos” party held a week ago by a Cal Poly fraternity.

After complaints surfaced, university administrators denounced the Nov. 15 party as offensive, have launched an investigation, and organized the forum at the University’s Chumash Auditorium for students to voice their reactions.

Although Cal Poly officials haven’t named the fraternity, The Cal Poly Diversity Coalition named Phi Sigma Kappa responsible in an email Wednesday to its mailing list.

Interfraternity Council PR director Alex Horncliff apologized at the forum on behalf of all fraternities. “We messed up. That is something that is clear. … It is something we are very sorry for as a community of Greeks,” he said.

“Much of the conversation in the past four days has been about who did this,” Vice President for Student Affairs Keith Humphrey said in a statement read by Dean of Students Jean DaCosta.

“Today’s event is instead about the central issue: looking at the impact that this event has had on our community, no matter what the intent of those individuals was. … It’s about how we take what happened and use all the emotions around this issue to make Cal Poly a stronger place and welcoming to all differences.”

The party’s impact has been felt far beyond Cal Poly, however, attracting the attention of the Arizona-based Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission.

Jenell Navarro, president of the Cal Poly American Indian and Faculty Staff Association, read aloud a statement by a commission board member about why the party theme was offensive.

“‘Colonial Bros’ … is a reference to one of the most brutal, humiliating and devastating experiences under American colonialism,” wrote Dr. Jennifer Rose Denetdale, an associate professor of American studies at the University of New Mexico.

In 1863, the commander of the New Mexico Territory began a scorch-and-burn campaign of Navajo land, and its indigenous peoples endured genocide, starvation and rape, Denetdale wrote.

Additionally, “To refer to the scantily clad women who came as ‘Nava-Hos’ is to not only diminish the Navajo people as a whole, because the term connotes ‘whore’ and ‘prostitute’ and suggests that Navajo women were sexually available to the white soldiers; it says that it is not possible to rape or sexually assault Navajo women because they are inherently rapable,” wrote Denetdale.

Her statement was published Friday online by Indian Country Today Media Network.

The forum gave voice to minority students with broader feelings of alienation at Cal Poly.

“I can’t help but be offended every time I hear ‘cinco de drinko,’” a Latino fraternity member said.

“As a Jewish student, I would be so horrifically offended if a fraternity or sorority on campus had an event with a theme of Nazis and Jews, and this is so disgustingly similar,” another student said.

Professor Bradley Kyker spoke on behalf of white males who are “grossly and egregiously offended,” he said.

“There is a special burden and responsibility that members of the dominant majority group bear. And that is indeed to speak out. And to know better. And to do better,” Kyker said.

Another professor spoke on behalf of a female student, who told him she was too scared to speak at the forum.

“It’s about race, but it’s also about gender,” he said. “And it’s also about calling women ‘hos,’ and that means it’s also about the rape culture that gets perpetuated with these ‘bros and hos’ parties. Rape is not a happy fun theme.”

Several speakers suggested a required course to expose all incoming freshmen to histories of oppression. Some urged the audience to stop standing by and start speaking when confronted with racism or sexism.

Because some students around campus have defended the party as an act of free speech, a second-year English major spoke up that racist party themes actually inhibit minority groups from feeling free to speak.

Using free speech as a defense is “an excuse for someone who doesn’t want to think about other people, to be able to say whatever they want without thinking about the consequences,” he said.

Those consequences were harmful to a female student who waited until the end of the forum to speak, saying she was nervous about revealing her specific descent. Her grandmother, a Navajo, was raised as a slave, she said.

“Native Americans are here on campus. It’s not like we are somewhere else. We are here.”

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