Ja'han Jones' graceful, necessary response to Tau Kappa Epsilon

The student president of the African American Men of Arizona State University wrote to the brothers of Tau Kappa Epsilon, not 'to reprimand, or defame, or scold, but to ask with the utmost sincerity: Why?' 

Jarrett Maupin/Brian Skoloff/AP
The Arizona State University fraternity Tau Kappa Epsilon hosted a distasteful party in commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, replete with racist stereotypes and offensive costumes. The Rev. Jarrett Maupin, center, an Arizona civil rights activist, speaks during a news conference in Phoenix in response to the party on Jan. 21.

Ja’han Jones, the student president of the African American Men of Arizona State University, has issued a calm, caring, and measured response to the brothers of the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity, following the group’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day “Black Party.” 

Mr. Jones’ mature and well-crafted message underlines the need for parents to reinforce with their children that MLK Day is never a holiday from good grace, but rather an invitation for grace throughout the year.

The Brothers of Tau Kappa Epsilon apparently decided to demonstrate their mission statement “to aid men in their mental, moral, and social development for life” by throwing an MLK Day “Black Party” and dressing up as demeaning racial stereotypes.

I live in the south, where race is an issue gliding just below the surface, much like a shark waiting to break a flat, calm sea. Being born in New York City and being raised in New Jersey, it still shocks me when I hear someone here that is white grumbling, “Why do we still need MLK Day when there’s a black president?”

This incident, and many more like it, is why we need to talk with our kids about racial equality more days than just one, and emphasize that mocking people, especially an entire race, is never, ever, acceptable.

I admire that, while many people would have reached for their poison pen in response, Mr. Jones took the high road.

In his online letter, "To the Brothers of Tau Kappa Epsilon," Jones wrote the kind of response one might expect of a seasoned parent. He wrote:

“I am concerned, however, that your legacy is enduring an almost-irreparable damage, and further, that you’ve demonstrated a willingness to endure this damage for meager laughs and degradation at the expense of the African American community,” Jones wrote. “I am concerned that your organization’s self-professed mission to “aid men in their mental, moral, and social development for life” eludes you with such heinous acts as your most recent ‘MLK Black Party’.

As the mother of four sons, I would be so proud if one of my boys were to write such a clear-minded rebuke. Personally, it took me a good hour before I could lower my temper and raise my writing game to Jones’ level.

As a mother, I ask, how many times do we need to talk about this before we get the message? The actions of frats and sororities need some improved mentoring from their own parent organizations, because while moms and dads at home may have drummed values into the heads of their children before they left for school, Greek life seems to bring on amnesia for what is appropriate behavior.

In this particular case, the TKE “parent” organization issued a statement distancing itself from the base acts of its offspring. Chief Information Officer Alex Baker wrote about the incident:

“Tau Kappa Epsilon does not condone or support any actions by its members that would be defined as racist, discriminatory, and/or offensive. Social events with "party themes" that are defined as such have no place in our fraternity's mission or purpose. It is with embarrassment and regret when a few individuals within our organization make decisions that do not align with the values and principles of Tau Kappa Epsilon.”

I want the TKE national organization to read Jones’ words:

“I am concerned that your fraternal structure is transforming into an echo chamber for racism. And further, I am concerned that not a man stood among you brothers with the foresight to predict the shame such an event would heap upon your organization.”

Yet, Jones stopped short of condemning the Greek system. Instead, he offered true fraternity in the form of brotherhood, suggesting they meet and discuss ways to improve the situation.

In that respect, Jones reminded me of something Mahatma Gandhi once counseled, “You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.”

It was Jones’ reserve that made me consider how, as parents, we may be allowing our children to be conditioned to think that races being civil to each other is something that comes on a single date on the calendar, marked by a day off from school.

While we may have taught our children something about the civil rights movement, what have we shared about our personal responsibility to be civil and loving to others? 

Our responsibility in 2014 and beyond is to teach our children, no matter how old they may be, to behave toward others with the integrity and brotherhood demonstrated by Jones in the face of such ignorant behavior as TKE members demonstrated.

At the end of the day, it’s about breaking the cycle of racism and ugliness, and teaching our kids about kindness and caring that is celebrated everyday.

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