Let’s Pick Costumes. Not Cultures: Cultural Appropriation in Fraternity & Sorority Communities

Devin Hall, Coordinator of IFC Services
North-American Interfraternity Conference

With Halloween right around the corner, individuals are lining up at costume stores to pick out this year’s outfit. Should I be Fred Flintstone or Darth Vader? Should I go to the party as a sexy animal or cast member from Friends? The brainstorming has begun. Oftentimes, our costume reflects the events or parties we plan on attending. As we enter this fun-filled season of pumpkins and costumes, it is important that we reflect on choices and how they may impact those around us.

Fraternity and sorority communities have been under the spotlight for decades related to the culture of organizations and heteronormative environments. We host social event that are themed around holidays, university traditions, organization history, or celebratory milestones. Too often, when selecting social event themes, organizations have walked the line of creating an environment for cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation refers to a “particular power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group.”
Viewed as funny, ironic, trendy, or an opportunity to be retweeted by TFM, dressing up as a Native American, painting oneself with blackface, or dressing as a homeless person is not only offensive behavior, but also correctable.

This blog post will discuss ways in which an Interfraternity Council can take the necessary steps to ensure that member organizations make responsible decisions regarding event themes, costumes, and social media that reflect their values and morals. Our goal is for fraternities to avoid promoting concepts that reinforce historical stereotypes and mock or offend various cultures, races, ethnicities, or identities.

Diversity Education
The first step to creating a safe and welcoming environment is educating your peers about diversity and inclusion. How often does your community facilitate educational programs that include conversations about diversity? If you have not already, introduce the concept of cultural appropriation as a next-level discussion topic. It is important that your community finds opportunities to learn about cultural competencies, and encourages members to reflect on how their actions or words can be insulting to other individuals, including brothers and sisters in your own community. Awareness is not enough; understanding and incorporation into personal behavior is critical.
Here are some educational programming tips:

  • Collaborate with campus partners to help facilitate the conversation. This topic can be difficult, so reach out to individuals on campus who specialize in supporting marginalized groups. Professional staff in offices focused on multicultural, LGBTQ, and women’s issues and services are a great start.
  • Bring national conversations to your community. Reflect on a recent incidents like at the University of California, Los Angeles, and ask peers how sharing these lived experiences can improve accountability and provide learning opportunities for members.
  • Bring a trained educational speaker to campus. Research individuals who specialize in diversity and speak to an identity your community may be interested in learning more about.
  • Share this education infographic from Intervarsity with council officers, chapter leadership, and social chairs:

Selecting an Inclusive Social Event
Now that you have provided a foundation in diversity education, it is time to empower your chapter leadership to ensure their organizations are planning inclusive events. Inclusive events are welcoming to and respectful of the individuals that make up a campus’s diverse community. Often, party themes are discussed and decided up on in the vacuum of a chapter meeting. Groupthink often plays a role: individual members recognize an issue with a theme but do not speak up, assuming someone else will, or that there could be retaliation for challenging the idea. Other times, members simply do not recognize a theme as wrong or inappropriate. We need to encourage fraternity men to acknowledge that cultural appropriation is real and needs to be addressed.
Here are some tips to ensure members make respectful decisions:

  • Facilitate a conversation with fraternity presidents about how they would respond if their organization was hosting a culturally insensitive event. What steps would they take to ensure that the event does not take place? Do they see the event as culturally appropriate or respecting others’ traditions?
  • Educate chapters about possible repercussions associated with promoting an inappropriate or discriminatory theme. What are their inter/national organization’s policies, or those of the institution? Does IFC have a policy and procedure in place to hold chapters accountable?
  • Theme parties are often glorified by TFM and TSM, in music videos, and they make major news headlines. This publicity is not what your chapter/organization needs or wants. Show the world what fraternities value by respecting differences and celebrating culture.

Social Event Registration
How does the IFC on your campus ensure member organizations are hosting responsible programing? One of the ways to prevent potentially risky program themes is for the IFC to approve social events that take place in its community. Do you know where chapters are hosting events? How about the themes or name of their parties? These days, parties have their own social media presence (i.e.  #RedWhite&BetterThanYou #KanyeWesten #Back2BackWorldChamps). Have you thought about the impact of cultural insensitivity on individuals who follow you on social media?
Here are some social event registration recommendations:

  • Have chapters register social events by submitting date, location, description of event (theme or title), entertainment description.
  • Discuss responsible social media promotion with your chapters. If a party must have its own hashtag, ensure it is not derogatory, discriminatory, or vulgar.
  • Remind organizations that they must uphold University, council, and organization policies. Create a form that acknowledges the chapter will take full responsibility of the event and will follow all state and city laws, University policies and guidelines, as well as inter/national fraternity and sorority policies.
  • Remind chapters that they are required to monitor the behavior of individuals at their event, ensuring member and guest safety and wellbeing.
  • Ensure that all social event registration information is submitted with the social chair and organization president’s signatures with date signed.

In order to improve our collective image, we need to empower our members to make decisions that represent the values and standards of our organizations. It is your responsibility as a leader in IFC to hold your peers accountable for the decisions they make. Let’s be on CNN for raising millions of dollars for a children’s hospital, not for painting our skin or wearing sombreros to mock another individual’s culture.

We must be the change we want to see in the fraternal community. To learn more about what’s wrong with cultural appropriation, follow this link. For more information about diversity programming, cultural appropriation, or social event regulations, please contact your Coordinators of IFC Services at the North-American Interfraternity Conference at

Your Comment
Your email address will not be published