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Ernest Owens Headshot

Why We Won't Back Down

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If the politics of respectability is to be infiltrated within the sub-culture of under-presented groups in this nation... why can't the same be expected for those of privilege?

That was the overarching question I pondered as I led a coalition of peers to break the silence of an age-old tradition that has been celebrated on campuses across America.

Culturally insensitive campus parties have been rampant in institutions of higher learning for many years. But recently, they have been more public and for the under-represented groups that encounter such disregard for their sexuality, socio-economic status, race and heritage, "enough is enough" is an understatement.

If you attended Dartmouth College, you might have encountered a "Crips and Bloods" party. Or in Arizona State University, watermelon cups that glamorized an "MLK Day" party. But at the University of Pennsylvania last week, I had to scroll through social media to realize that my campus was no exception.

A sorority member of Penn's Chi Omega personally reached out to me asking for me to reveal and bring attention to a recent mixer that her sorority had in collaboration with the fraternity of Beta Theta Pi at Penn.

The theme was a "gangsta" mixer that featured members of the sorority in side caps with baggy sweatpants, mock tattoos with the words "thug life" written on the knuckles. The event featured fraternity men with sacrilegious tattoos on their neck and "thug" written across their arm.

This un-registered Greek affiliated event was an offensive trigger to a life that I had experienced on sight. Some of these Greek members took to making the captions of their picture read "In West Philadelphia, born and raised," which further showed the ugliness of elitism and inconsideration of people from underprivileged backgrounds.

Growing up on the Southwest side of Houston, Texas, I lost several of my friends and classmates to gang-related violence. I saw young black men and women lose their families to incarceration. I had to experience walking down certain parts of my community and make sure that the block wasn't hot.

Overcoming those humble beginnings and avoiding the "thug life" brought me to an Ivy League institution where I expected that as much as I had left that life behind me, so would the privileged individuals who never had experienced it.

I was mistaken.

At that point, I had made up my mind. This was not just going to fly. The fact that this event was socio-economically insensitive and racially offensive and has happened repeatedly was more than enough for me to speak out. Because being a "gangsta" has a racially charged connotation than that of being a "gangster." I felt attacked as a black man in a nation that has killed many that look like me on such skewed misperceptions.

The entire event was a huge micro-aggression. Given that there are few people of color that are a part of the fraternity and sorority, the lack of sensitivity toward their own members is upsetting.

So after bringing the initial images of the event to light on my Facebook page, heated discussions on race and class erupted. This time the campus was in debates about what it means to actually live the life of a "gangsta" and why under-represented groups should not ignore this party.

And at 7:30 p.m. the following night, I released a public open letter on my personal website to both organizations asking them to make a public apology and effort to work to improve their relations with the larger Penn community.

That following night, the harassment and threats ensued. Whether it was emails late at night or private phone calls or attempts to slander my name or being called a "ni**er" and "fa**ot" online, a section of my campus felt that me declaring my First Amendment right to freedom of speech was just too much.

Like any other young adult at age 22, I expressed some of my frustration on social media. Because as a young black adult who has spent his entire life remaining civil and non-violent, I was now being told to "calm down" and to "chill out." I was being treated as if my problems and concerns were not as significant given that they could not be convinced why it was such a "big deal."

And it was in this moment that I realized that some of my fellow underrepresented peers were telling me to "let it go" and to "stop cyber-bullying" and "public shaming," which was an indication that they had fell into the trap of policing the voice of the oppressed. For what I was actually doing was bringing awareness and if that exposed the ugly truth, that was not bullying, but enlightening peers of a harsh reality of ignorance that should be eradicated.

However, those next few days, I had encountered a slew of insults and jabs at my intentions on social media. Some felt that my advocacy was a way to boost my already solidified campus presence. One individual even tried to accuse me of having a "savior complex," an insult that movers and shakers such as Dr. King, President Obama, Gloria Steinem and Mother Teresa have encountered as well. As they began to shoot at the messenger, I began to recognize that I had to bring the focus back on the message.

At this point, I dropped the mic. I realized that the only way power was to shift back to the cause was if it was given to others. Mobilization was essential and I needed it fast. I encountered various students across campus that fell in line with what I believed to be important. And then I gave them advice on how to communicate these thoughts and in return they helped spread the message. I created a viral petition where peers across my campus could also voice their thoughts.

As a result, we became a stronger unit. A movement that was self-sustaining. And even though initially we were defensive and engaged with the opposition, we finally realized that the world was watching and finally the university heard us.

After several meetings and talks across the campus, the fraternity and sorority in question are now under investigation and now the rest of the campus is beginning to wake up.

If this means anything to anyone, let it be the story of when people from diverse backgrounds on college campuses stood up and turned down the misrepresentation of who they are. Let it be the message across all institutions of higher learning that every student deserves to be respected.

It is our right as citizens in a nation that expects the same for us.

And we won't back down until they do.