A William & Mary fraternity has been accused of the cultural appropriation of U.S. military culture and racism against Asians after hosting a camo-themed party.
Pi Kappa Alpha, known as PIKA on campus, threw the themed party earlier this month as part of its Military Appreciation Week, raising money for disabled veterans. The annual bash dates back to 1964 and was initially hosted as a farewell party for students drafted to fight in Vietnam. A few years ago, the fraternity changed its Vietnam theme to a broader camouflage theme after Asian-American students took offense, but the controversy around the party has persisted.
This year, the Student Veteran Association took issue with the party, complaining to William & Mary’s president, the dean of students, the student assembly president, the Student Leadership Development Office, and the Interfraternity Council.
Tim Beck, an army ranger who served two terms in Afghanistan and who is now president of the campus veterans’ group, did not reply to Heat Street’s request for comment, but he told the student newspaper he’d “like to see them get kicked off campus.”
“No one is fooled by this cultural appropriation,” Beck said. “It’s a disgrace to the uniform, it’s a disgrace to the people who died while wearing this uniform. … I think that any group that year after year after year engages in such a gross and disgusting appropriation on the level that they do just can’t be tolerated anymore. There needs to be an example set.”
The Asian-American Student Initiative also complained, saying that even though it was officially now a camo-themed event, PIKA still used bamboo decorations, and several members still referred to it as the “Nam Party” on social media.
“The use of a country, its people, and its culture as a party theme is racist,” Aastha Uprety, the group’s co-director, told Heat Street, “especially when bamboo is used at the venue as a decorative piece, which has nothing inherently to do with the military, and is used to invoke a crude aesthetic of Vietnam or Asia in general. We also agree with the student veterans that the aestheticization of a devastating war is completely inappropriate to use as a party theme, since it grossly affected both Americans as well as Vietnamese/Asian people.”
The Asian-American Student Initiative’s witness statement and impact report, submitted to the Student Leadership Development Office, has garnered signatures from 70 other campus groups.
The Interfraternity Council, which declined Heat Street’s interview request, has also opened an investigation into the party. In a statement earlier this week, the IFC said it would “take instances of racism, cultural appropriation and disrespect seriously and hold our member organizations accountable for behavior inconsistent with our values.”
According to the student newspaper, IFC could ban PIKA from throwing social events or put the fraternity on probation.
Suzanne Seurattan, a spokesperson for William & Mary, said the university has received several complaints about the party, which was “held off campus and was not a W&M sanctioned event.”
“We take those concerns seriously — William & Mary has worked hard in recent years on improving cultural awareness and promoting inclusion of all members of our community,” Seurattan said. “We’re reviewing the matter and determining next steps, which very likely will include efforts to facilitate dialogue and communication among the relevant parties.”
By deadline, PIKA’s president, Adam Illowsky, had not responded to Heat Street’s request for comment. But he told the student newspaper that the camo party was part of the fraternity’s Military Appreciation Week, which included fundraisers for disabled veterans and a speech by a severely wounded army veteran who was the PIKA’s honored guest.
“We cannot make it more clear: Military Appreciation Week is held to honor and celebrate American veterans and to raise funds for veterans organizations,” Illowsky said.
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for Heat Street and is a fellow for the Steamboat Institute and the Independent Women’s Forum.