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Fraternity Pays Penance With Racism Seminar

September 11, 1989|TRACY WILKINSON | Times Staff Writer

Last fall, a group of Phi Gamma Delta pledges at USC circulated a leaflet that many people considered racist.

As part of fraternity initiation rites, the pledges were holding what the flyer advertised as a "slave auction," complete with a picture of a thick-lipped black man in a grass skirt--a "Fiji man" reminiscent of the figure the fraternity once used as a "mascot." "Fiji" is the group's nickname.

"It was kind of demeaning," concedes Phi Gamma Delta President Brad Holladay.

So now, with fraternity rush scheduled to start today, Phi Gamma Delta has begun to pay penance.

For more than five hours Sunday, a small group of fraternity and sorority representatives sat through a workshop designed to teach them to recognize, accept and appreciate cultural differences. The symposium was organized and paid for by Phi Gamma Delta as part of sanctions levied against it by university administrators because of the flyers.

"We are trying to do something like this to make up for it," Holladay, a senior history major, said.

The seminar was conducted by Lillian Roybal Rose, a counselor and consultant who has taught "cross-cultural communication" to university faculties, women's groups and police departments.

Rose said her goal was to get the overwhelmingly white group to understand the "way oppression works"--that it forces its victims to adopt "postures" and certain forms of behavior. She tried to make them see the difference between "culture" and patterns of behavior that are often distorted by self-defense mechanisms.

See street violence as street violence, not "black violence," she told them. Instead of generalizing about Asians as bad drivers, understand the problem is one of new immigrants learning to drive. When a Latino is sexist, see it as sexism, not as "typical" behavior by a Latino male.

If Rose made any headway with the group, it was slow.

One student from Jordan said he had always thought that when his fraternity brothers praised him for not "acting like an Arab," it was a compliment.

"Now I see it was an insult," he said, laughing. "Thanks for opening my eyes."

The subject of the racist flyer that Phi Gamma Delta pledges had distributed came up late in the seminar, some of the fraternity members apparently still a bit dismayed that the incident had come to reflect on the whole organization. Last fall saw a series of racist incidents on college campuses across the nation. And in 1986, a USC fraternity and a sorority were temporarily suspended for using anti-Semitic slogans and chants.

"You have to understand where people are coming from," Rose said. "You have to understand the history of oppression" that a particular group suffers. "It doesn't matter that you didn't mean it," she added. "It became racism."

Rose told the group that when blacks, Latinos or other minorities laugh along at racist jokes, they are merely trying to minimize the pain.

"Let me tell you non-target-group people, long after you've gone to bed, the beating goes on with me," Rose, a Latina, told her audience.

Most of those who participated--the audience of 25 dwindled to about nine by day's end--said their organizations had considered attendance mandatory. Phi Gamma Delta had told fraternities and sororities they would be fined $50 if they did not send two members, preferably at least one rush chairperson. But Ken Taylor, director of the Office of Greek Life, said Phi Gamma Delta did not have the authority to fine those who did not attend.

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