The deep economic, social and racial divisions at Duke University | First Person | Indy Week
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The deep economic, social and racial divisions at Duke University 

"Herro Nice Duke Peopre!" began a mass email from the Eta Prime chapter of Kappa Sigma, a fraternity at Duke University.

It was an invitation to their umpteenth annual "Asia Prime" theme party, held Feb. 5. Taking the cue, attendees donned stereotypical "Asian" garb (e.g. chopsticks in hair, rice farmer hats) and posed for Facebook with hands clasped and heads bowed. Google can get you up to speed on the frenzy that ensued.

Over the past few days, I've struggled with how I, an Asian-American Duke alum, should feel about this mess. Judging from the reactions from student groups, Internet comments and national media, I should be offended, outraged, disgusted, disappointed, etc. Instead I'm just sad. Anger implies some measure of surprise. I've come to accept that this is the way things are at Duke.

The truth is that deep and implicit divisions have long existed at Duke, at least from what I saw in my four years. These divisions are the breeding ground for whatever possesses someone with a Duke education to pen an email that begins "Herro" and ends "Chank you." Out of those divisions comes whatever compels a fraternity chapter claiming to be "based on building a better man" to respond to critics by sending another email with this non-apology: "It seems our forebrothers' secrets of the far east [sic] did not survive the move back to campus" (Eta Prime had only recently returned from off-campus exile due to misconduct). Eta Prime then snidely renamed the party "International Relations" with the sarcastic subtitle "a celebration of all cultures and the diversity of Duke."

I wouldn't call these forces racism, at least not the malicious or conscious kind. And they can't be blind ignorance on a campus as diverse as Duke, where one of every five students identifies as Asian. I'm talking about whatever it is that lets a prestigious liberal arts degree from Duke symbolize a well-rounded education while rarely ever fulfilling that mission; that lets an institution of higher learning recruit a student primarily for his basketball skills; that lets incidents like this spark a heated crusade for two self-righteous sides and be forgotten within a week. It's that selfish, shapeshifting muck that appears in the gap between who a person is and who he can say he is, and it props up the hypocrisy.

Don't write me off as some dreamy-eyed idealist. I'm only talking about Duke. Even though I am not angry, I understand the whiplash of on-campus outrage. Duke was supposed to be different. We were told, as freshmen standing shoulder to shoulder, forming a giant "2011"—our graduation year—on the sweltering lawn of East Campus, that we would spend our time as undergraduates building a new collective identity as Blue Devils, regardless of our backgrounds.

Impressionable freshmen, we ate it hook, line and sinker. We lived our entire Duke careers under the banner of a singular campus, even as we began to quietly etch out identities of race, privilege, socioeconomic status, area of study and Greek membership. This was our hypocrisy: We tolerated our obviously widening differences with a blind belief that the Duke name kept us together.

Anyone bright enough to get into Duke knows how to read between the lines, and there are a million other things on the mind of a full-time university student. So maybe the real reason people got angry is the disruption of this mutual understanding; someone slipped and upset the equilibrium. Maybe I'm just really gullible.

Even if that's true, it still makes me sad, because I'd always hoped universities would be the one place where things could be different. A day after the Asia Prime fiasco, the president of Eta Prime, Luke Keohane, distributed a glossy, vacuous PR-style apology, and Duke University VP of Student Affairs Larry Moneta announced the university had no plans to punish the fraternity, saying, "We are resolved to use these events as learning opportunities." Eta Prime ended up being suspended by both Duke and the national fraternal organization. But, Moneta told the Duke Chronicle, "[The suspension] has nothing to do with the Asian theme party."

Can hypocrisy be made honest in an instant, or does it merely learn how better to hide itself?

Jason Y. Lee graduated from Duke in 2011. He is a former intern at INDY Week.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Hypocrisy in its full splendor."

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