‘Nava-ho’ party was ignorant, investigation is no better

Graphic by Bryce Snyder

Mustang News Editorial Board

From the actions of greek life to those of campus administrators, the “Nava-hos” incident this past week showed some of the worst of our university to the world.

The organizations that held a “Colonial Bros and Nava-hos”-themed party earlier this month need to reevaluate of their judgment and sensitivity. Those who hosted the party need to own up to their mistake to everyone on campus, not just send their public relations director to apologize after being called out at a campus forum.

But Cal Poly also needs a reminder in its duties as part of the state government; free speech cannot fall by the wayside, even when students engage in ideas that are as insensitive as the fraternity party.

That’s not to say the actions of those greeks involved in the event are defendable. Though it’s been pointed out several times now, it is still important to say: Everyone, not just Native Americans, should be offended by the fact this party happened.

Men should be offended by it. Fraternity men, those who claim to be the top leaders on campus, took a cheap shot at women by exploiting their sexuality with a reference to the rape and slaughter of Native Americans. Those who thought it was OK to have this party poorly represent the men on campus who treat women with respect and recognize the gravity of what American colonials did to indigenous people.

To the men who participated in it, it was your responsibility to say something. For those of you who did not, your inaction created an environment at your university where all female students can be labeled as “hos,” simply for being women. That environment has now made local, national and international news, casting Cal Poly as a racist and immature campus to people far beyond San Luis Obispo.

Native Americans, of course, should reject what happened. As our editorial board contains no one of native descent, we’ll leave it Jennifer Rose Denetdale, an associate professor of American Studies at the University of New Mexico and member of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission to say why. She wrote a response to the party published in Indian Country Today Media Network, a national newsmagazine for natives in the U.S.

“To invoke ‘Colonial Bros,’” she wrote, “is to refer to one of the most darkest moments in American history and certainly for the Navajo people, it is a reference to one of the most brutal, humiliating, and devastating experiences under American colonialism.

“To refer to the scantily clad women who came as ‘Nava-Hos’ is to not only diminish the Navajo people as 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. ‘Colonial Bros and Nava-Hos’ is also a slander on Navajo women who have survived rape and sexual assault that was a part of conquest.”

And women need to take these events seriously, too. Yes, faculty from the Women and Gender Studies Department rightly called out greek life for its immaturity at an open forum Friday, but the outrage isn’t as widespread all over campus. In an online survey by Mustang News, the majority of responses defended the party. These “bros and hos” parties regularly draw hundreds of women — and they’re often from sororities.

Change in this area needs to come from a commitment by sorority leaders to discourage members from attending these parties. These leaders need to stop condoning their members as they label themselves as “hos” and “sluts” by attending these kinds of parties. How they choose to dress is irrelevant. Events with misogynistic titles alienate women who might otherwise attend.

And just as these leaders can express their own personal opinions, Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong can do the same by denouncing this party as something that offends his own beliefs.

But using university resources to investigate and try to stop these parties is an absolute violation of students’ right to free speech.

In an email to campus telling students about this party, Armstrong and Vice President for Student Affairs Keith Humphrey said that “events like these have no place in the Cal Poly community.”

While the two might believe this, it isn’t true. Courts have ruled again and again that citizens — including those at universities — have a right to say what they want, even if it’s unpopular. Party themes can be tasteless; costumes can be objectifying. But unless students are targeted and lose access to state resources because of it, there’s no legal reason the state should stop that speech.

Based on what Cal Poly has released so far about why it is investigating — that some people found the party theme and dress “offensive” — the university should immediately drop its investigation.

In this case, it is appropriate for university leaders to call out the party’s hosts for their ignorance and immaturity in choosing this theme. They’d be correct in doing so. But as long as the First Amendment stands, it is not Cal Poly’s place to try to stop this act of free speech through the threat of investigation or punishment.

This represents the opinion of the Mustang News editorial board, which includes J.J. Jenkins, Carly Rickards, Sean McMinn and Olivia DeGennaro.

  • Adam

    This is a wild misunderstanding of the First Amendment, one that I fear is informed by the overreaching fake concern of FIRE and other right-wing groups seeking to “protect” people from being called out for their racism. Free speech does not mean speech without consequences from one’s community.

    Cal Poly has both a right and an obligation to determine whether students were targeted by this party, and to determine if the party violated community standards or rules the fraternities abide by. To term such an investigation a “threat” is give preference to fraternities’ cowardly insistence that their actions not be reviewed over the right of the University to enforce its own policies.

    It’s hard for be to believe that students at one of the state’s top schools did not intend to harm with this theme. It seems highly unlikely that Cal Poly men would be so uninformed in the colonial history of both the U.S. and California and its effects on Native people that this was just an oversight. If that is the case, Cal Poly has failed as an educational institution.

    I’ve noticed that Cal Poly and its greek organizations seemed to be intertwined. Cal Poly should consider whether to sever those ties completely. As a state actor, why should public monies go to subsidize organizations that denigrate women and Native peoples?

    • Davidson Freeman

      Adam, you clearly do not understand the First Amendment. The entire point of a Constitutionally recognized right the free speech is to acknowledge that the government cannot impose punishment for the content of your speech. You obscure “community” with “government.” As an extension of the State government, the University has no legal or moral right to punish people for their exercised free speech and association.

      I don’t think you even understand what you’re implying and what consequences they present. Let’s say, and this is only hypothetical, you and your friends get together on Saturday for a Fascist Party; you discuss how much you dislike the other way people live their own lives, and how you wish you had the legal authority to control them. If I found this disgusting and offensive and complained, and the University agreed with me, you would have no moral choice but to cheer gleefully as the University worked to publicly humiliate you and held forums to discuss your actions, because you’ve acknowledged that the University can and should trample on your free speech and free association rights when it sees fight.

      The right thing to do is for the University to shut the hell up. The fraternity did nothing criminal, so there is nothing for them to say or do.

      As Christopher Hitchens said, “The essence of tyranny is not iron law. It is capricious law.”

      • Adam

        The First Amendment is not an absolute protection of all speech, as I gather you probably know, but are eliding here. However, the First Amendment is not the only consideration here. As always, there are overlapping agreements, responsibilities, standards, and expectations that may result in consequences short of sanctions that implicate the First Amendment. An investigation is not a punishment, for example. Nor is visibility and a call for more education.

        The fact that you claim potential humiliation and “holding forums to discuss your actions” are trampling on free speech and association shows you too are living in the pretend world where speech and action has no consequence. Is it your intention that a community should not respond to a fascist party?

        You seem to be arguing here and elsewhere that the University has an obligation to protect and even promote instances of discrimination and denigration. That is not the purpose of the First Amendment.

        • Da Moose

          An investigation is not punishment, but it is a threat of punishment that can stifle free speech. If there had been any criminal activity alleged, the university would be perfectly within their rights to investigate. But that is not the case. The only “crimes” being alleged are people being offended. And that is not enough of a reason for the university to launch an investigation.

          The university is perfectly within its rights to condemn the actions of the people involved. And it should. As you said, potential humiliation and holding forums is not trampling on free speech. But official punishment or the threat of punishment for protected speech and actions which do not range into criminal behavior, does infringe on those rights.

          Condemn the party and the people involved. Humiliate them, if you so desire. Call upon the national fraternity to investigate the local chapter and meet out whatever punishment they find appropriate (as a non-governmental organization, they are free to set their own rules for appropriate conduct). Hold forums and state your case that this was entirely insensitive and offensive. All of these options are legal and, in my belief, just.

          But a public university has no right to threaten punishment over protected, if insensitive, speech and actions.

      • RandomFreeSpeech

        Sorry I’m a little bit confused, but didnt the frat agree to follow Cal Poly’s frat policies found here: http://studentlife.calpoly.edu/greek/info_resources/policies.asp , which says something along the lines of “Any action taken by a greek chapter that bring a negative image to Cal Poly will have a judicial hearing.”

        Cal Poly has a right to protect the image of their school, and face it, this party gives Cal Poly a bad image.

  • Pingback: University Launches ‘Cultural Insensitivity, Sexism’ Probe After ‘Colonial Bros and Nava-hos’ Party

  • http://www.picsofcelebrities.net/blog/2012/05/08/voice-season-finale Cromulent

    This party’s theme was a disgrace.

    Our Founding Fathers were not a bunch of horned-up pervs.

    • John12345

      Actually you must not know a whole lot about the founding fathers. Our very own Thomas Jefferson routinely had sex with his slaves, and he was married. I doubt they would have cared at all about a party in this theme.

      • http://www.picsofcelebrities.net/blog/2012/05/08/voice-season-finale Cromulent

        Ah, so its ok to call this culturally insensitive towards Indians, but not European White Males. Gotcha.

        • mark

          you’re just being ignorant to the facts.

          • http://www.picsofcelebrities.net/blog/2012/05/08/voice-season-finale Cromulent

            Yup, the founders came here just for the tail. Gotcha.

    • John12345

      All I was saying is that some of our founding fathers were in fact “horned-up pervs”. Through that statement are you implying that everyone at that party was a “horned-up perv”? That seems a little extreme and one could easily take offense to your broad stereotyping towards college students. It’s a two way street there so you might want to watch yourself.

      Additionally; in no way shape or form did I find this party offensive. It was a holiday themed costume party, nothing else. Even suggesting that this party was directly aimed at exploiting the plight of Native Americans is preposterous.

      If students want to dress up for thanksgiving, than let them. Last time I checked it’s a free country and there is no law against wearing a costume to a party. If for some reason something as harmless as this is deemed offensive than that’s tragic; but it still gives no entity the right to stifle that expression and even explore punishments when no party was ever at fault.

      • http://www.picsofcelebrities.net/blog/2012/05/08/voice-season-finale Cromulent

        Ah, but there were no horned-up Navajo women? Please.

        • John12345

          I’m sorry but what exactly are you trying to argue here? Your statements make no sense and like all humans I’m sure that some Navajo women were more promiscuous and others were not. Again, your statements are entirely irrelevant.

          • http://www.picsofcelebrities.net/blog/2012/05/08/voice-season-finale Cromulent

            The point is that if the party is offensive, its offensive to *both* Indians and “Colonial Bros”.

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