Students were rightfully offended by the Kappa Sigma “Bahama Mama”-themed party advertisement posted outside the Student Center Aug. 30, even if the advertisement itself was potentially well-intentioned.
To help Kappa Sigma members who say they are unaware of the advertisement’s offensive nature understand why it was in fact offensive, one must first look into Kappa Sigma’s racist history and second into how the man in the advertisement shares characteristics with Jim Crow-era caricatures.
This isn’t the first time Kappa Sigma has been criticized on the basis of racist depictions. Kappa Sigma has frequently elicited bad press concerning racist costumes and fraternity party themes.
According to a May 2017 Washington Post article, a Kappa Sigma chapter at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, held a “Mexican”-themed party. The theme was advertised as “Cinco de Mayo,” “Drinko de Mayo” and even “Cinco de Drinko.” People dressed in large sombreros and ponchos, and some even dressed up as maids and construction workers, perpetuating harmful stereotypes of Mexican people.
Kappa Sigma’s racist history doesn’t end there. According to an October 2017 New Star article, Kappa Sigma pledge brothers at the University of Louisiana, Monroe made extremely racist comments in a private GroupMe conversation that was later made public.
When responding to Kappa Sigma pledge Thomas Evans’ question about a good argumentative research paper topic, the brothers commented suggestions such as, “why segregation should be brought back,” “the difference between n—— and black people” and “why black lives don’t matter,” among other equally racist suggestions.
One might be thinking that Kappa Sigma’s actions at UCA are independent of those from universities around the southern United States. Though it’s true that UCA’s Kappa Sigs are not responsible for the actions of Kappa Sigma brothers in Texas or Louisiana, they all are still members of the same fraternity. Therefore, the actions of one member can reflect on the reputation of Kappa Sigma chapters around the United States. At the very least, this history should make UCA Kappa Sigma brothers extremely cautious regarding promotional material for parties and general communications between members.
In light of the recency of UCA Sigma Tau Gamma brother, Brock Denton, wearing blackface as part of a Bill Cosby costume at a 2016 Halloween fraternity party, it’s no wonder students are hyperaware of potentially racist promotional material for fraternity parties.
The character on the Bahama Mama party advertisement has dark skin, an extremely large mouth showing elongated teeth and an extremely big nose. One can automatically connect these facial features to Jim Crow-era cartoons that depicted big mouths, with bright red lips and big teeth, as well as large noses. The most striking connection, however, would be the cartoon’s similarity to a caricature popularized by the Coon Chicken Inn.
The Coon Chicken Inn was a restaurant that existed from the mid-1920s to the early 1950s. It’s promotional art featured a racist depiction of a black caricature. The caricature’s smile displays a large set of teeth, and his wink with one eye wide open resembles the expression of the character on the Kappa Sigma’s promotional banner.
Whether or not this depiction was intentional is hard to say. The Kappa Sigma promotional art is a near-exact copy of the commercial character art of a tiki man by a freelance illustration company called Flyland Designs. The artist for the advertisement clearly plagiarized, but that’s beside the point.
Regardless of intent, the fraternity should have known better. The Kappa Sigma members who said they didn’t know why the character was offensive have either been lying under a rock for the past several decades or were lying through their teeth. Kappa Sigma, and other campus fraternities, need to take this as a warning and be very aware of how their actions might harm those whose lives will be directly impacted by such racist depictions.