Caucasian Culture Club Controversy
Pitzer reacts to fake club proposal
On February 19, Pitzer students discovered, through the unmonitored list service, “student-talk,” that a Caucasian Culture Club (CCC) was to be proposed at that night’s Senate meeting.
After intense debate, Senate unanimously rejected the proposal. Then, three days later, students learned that the CCC was proposed as part of a documentary film made by three students in a Pitzer media studies course. For the next week, the CCC proposal was in the spotlight, as student-talk debates raged, Pitzer’s Black Student Union (BSU) hosted a discussion related to the events, Media Studies professors addressed Senate, and the Media Studies field group drafted a new ethics policy. Many Pitzer students and faculty still hold passionate opinions relating to this controversy, as it combines complicated and often emotionally charged topics like racism, academic and artistic freedom, and ethics.
The Club and Student Reactions
The purpose of the club, according to its proposed constitution, would be “to promote and celebrate the variant aspects of Caucasian culture.” Activities would include “having listening and dance parties of our favorite Caucasian artists…as well as the observance of traditionally Caucasian holidays, e.g. St. Patrick’s Day, Super Bowl Sunday, President’s Day, Groundhog Day, etc.” The “club proposers” suggested that it is “important for Caucasian students at Pitzer to feel they are also a part of a culture which contains a plethora of beautiful, folkloric traditions.”
The CCC proposal was the last topic to be discussed at the Senate meeting. “It’s fair to see that we [Caucasian people] deserve an identity and deserve to embrace that identity the same way that anybody else does,” explained New Resource (a program for students of non-traditional college age) student Michael Ceraso PZ ‘15. They also said the CCC would explore “what it means to be white in America.”
During discussion, many in attendance questioned whether the club was a serious proposal. Students pointed out that the proposers mistakenly associated American culture with whiteness and repeatedly contradicted themselves when explaining the purpose of the club as well as their own views on race. After students expressed their confusion, anger, and frustration in regards to this proposal, the CCC was unanimously rejected.
Student-talk responses ensued both before and after the Senate meeting. In addition to echoing concerns similar to those at the Senate meeting, students pointed out the CCC’s clear allusion to the KKK, and debated the concept of reverse racism. Some students wished that the proposal had garnered more student-talk discussion, and wondered whether the unanimous Senate rejection was a sufficient response to the CCC proposal, or if the administration should have made an official statement to the Pitzer community. Evelyn Cheung PZ ’13 wrote that she thought Pitzer attendees were “supposed to be politically aware and socially conscious enough to understand the political implications behind every one of their actions and words.” Many emails contained very strong opinions, and students were not afraid to explain why the proposal personally offended them.
Other students responded with jokes and sarcasm. In a sarcastic monologue, Yohai Hascalovici PZ ’14 emailed, “I for one laud the effort of these students to bring to the forefront a diverse and beautiful array of traditions and histories so often marginalized in western culture.” Another student, who preferred to remain anonymous, joked, “As an Armenian, I think it’s high time there were a club to bring our plight to the forefront! I should point out, though, that among Caucasians, there is little fraternity.”
Three days after the Senate meeting, Pitzer students received an email with a letter written by Alvaro Parra PZ ’12, Cassy Won SC ’14, and Chelsea Durgin CMC ’14. They explained that the CCC was proposed “for the purposes of filming a documentary that aims to explore and critique the concepts of ‘color-blindness,’ ‘white privilege,’ and the constructions and perceptions of race at Pitzer College.” They understood that some people were offended by the proposal, but felt that “this provocation was necessary to promote truthful dialogue and reactions about race and ethnic identity, something that is often times shrouded in hyper politically correct discourse at the Claremont Colleges.”
Once the true nature of the proposal was revealed, Pitzer students returned to student-talk saying they felt used, and questioned whether the project was approved by a professor or went through Pitzer’s Institutional Review Board. Hascalovici wrote, “to say that you’ve done something for the good of dialogue is not only an egregious lie but personally insulting to those who weren’t on the benefiting end of this project.” Ayanna Harris PZ ‘13 characterized students’ comments as ranging from “defending the club, pleading to move on from the issues raised simply because the proposal was unanimously rejected, to intimating that students who were outraged were ‘overreacting.’”
Soon after this revelation, Pitzer’s BSU sent out an email inviting people to attend a discussion about “White Privilege and what this means in relation to recent events such as the ‘experiment’ to bring a Caucasian Culture Club to our school.” About two dozen individuals attended the meeting, held on March 1. Students expressed their frustrations with the project, while Parra explained the background of the project and his intentions. Harris, a BSU member, believed it was important to have this discussion since “student-talk can be impersonal and misleading, and with something this politically charged, it’s very important to physically interact with each other as people… not as student-talk personalities.” Regarding her personal view of the project, she says she “disagree[s] with the claim that this was the only or best way to capture it.”
The next day, at the request of Pitzer’s Faculty Executive Committee, the Media Studies field group created a draft of their new ethics policy. Two days later, a week after the CCC proposal, Media Studies professors Jesse Lerner and Ruti Talmor attended Senate to discuss and answer questions regarding the CCC proposal, the documentary, and the new media studies policy. Despite their efforts, however, people like Senate Secretary Braden Holstege PZ ’14 were still disappointed. “They failed to address whether [the documentary project] was right or wrong, or whether the draft would have prevented it,” Holstege explained. He believed it was inappropriate to “exploit Senate for these projects,” since “it’s a group of volunteers who are giving their time.”
It is now known that Parra and his two peers’ project was part of their Pitzer Media Studies course, Documentary Media, co-taught by Professors Lerner and Talmor. Over email Parra explained, “we were inspired by a long tradition of mockumentary…which at times lie and deceive in order to tell the truth about something.” Despite their original intent, however, Parra and the others are no longer following through with their original plan; instead, they are interviewing students and teachers who “would like to share their opinions or reactions regarding” the CCC proposal.
Pitzer Media Studies professor Alexandra Juhasz similarly noted the tradition of controversial mockumentaries specifically addressing race and identity. On a broader note, she points out that, “throughout the world of art-making, there have been controversial and provocative pieces of art.” Regarding students’ reactions to this project, she stated, “The discourse I’ve heard in relation to this situation, which again was extremely complicated, was all about some people’s vulnerability, and not about those people’s power. This sort of default, that everyone is vulnerable, is simply not true. Marginalized people are vulnerable in certain situations and not in others, and have diverse reactions to the same situations.”
While the Pitzer community has diverse opinions regarding this project, most can agree upon the fact that overall, Pitzer’s student body successfully and passionately stood up to the proposal of the — later known to be fake — Caucasian Culture Club. Regarding the Senate meeting and the BSU-hosted discussion, Dan Segal, Pitzer professor of Anthropology and History, stated that, “many students…showed that they had a very sophisticated understandings of both the construction of race and of white privilege…Pitzer should feel really good about its students; how articulate they were and how able they were to disagree civilly, but forcefully.”
Hopefully Pitzer students and the rest of the 5Cs will continue to use and share their knowledge about race and related topics in positive ways. However, this can only be accomplished by having meaningful and productive discussions concerning not only race but also academic freedom, artistic freedom, and ethics at the Colleges and in society