Kill the poor, or at least make fun of them
What’s wrong with a homelessness-themed party? Apparently nothing, if we’re to believe Indiana University’s Kappa Delta chapter. According to Jezebel, an online, feminist news source, party-goers wore shredded clothing and signs with pithy pleas for money, such as “Why lie? It’s for BOOZE…” and “Give me a nickel and I’ll tickle your pickle.” Given that the city of Bloomington, Ind., where the university is located, has a higher-than-average rate of homelessness, the party was especially distasteful. Apparently homelessness is hilarious. Racist, classist and sexist party themes continue to crop up, even though it’s generally acknowledged that they are offensive. These parties cause uproar and thus feel subversive. It’s not actually transgressive or rebellious to get super-drunk and use your privilege to make fun of homeless people. The homelessness-themed party demonstrates a lack of empathy and reinforces institutionalized socioeconomic discrimination.
The main problem is that the majority of people who went to this party probably don’t think that they were being discriminatory against poor people. They probably wouldn’t describe themselves as lacking empathy, and given that it was a sorority party, a fair percentage do philanthropic work. The main problem in this scenario is unexamined privilege—in this case, economic and social privilege. A similar attitude pervades a lot of discussion about ethnic and racial discrimination. Although as a society we’ve generally agreed that racism is bad, people wear blatantly racist costumes to Halloween parties because they’re “funny” and not intentionally racist. There’s backlash against political correctness and humorlessness when it comes to critiquing party themes. It’s important to critique these parties, however, because not doing so is an implicit endorsement of discrimination.
At least in this case, there were no claims of satire or “homelessness awareness promotion.” Satire usually doesn’t translate well into party themes. I’m sure the party was fun, but there are other ways to have fun that do not display a complete disregard for the humanity of others. I was once invited to a “Cowbros and Navahos”-themed frat party. Why not just make it an S&M party? That plays with degradation and disparate levels of power without targeting a specific group of people. Plus, the costumes would be incredibly sexy, which accomplishes the central goal of casting Native American women as “hos” without being, you know, racist.
With regard to social problems, there’s a difference between irreverence and straight-up lack of empathy. This party was an example of the latter. Like racial and gender privilege, socioeconomic privilege often goes unexamined. In America, we talk a lot about bolstering the middle class. The wealthiest are obviously privileged, though there is always a constant buzz about how high tax rates on the wealthy disincentivize economic success. It’s obvious that the poor, particularly the desperately poor, are disadvantaged not only economically but socially and politically as well. Poor people are “lazy” or “drains on the system.” Alternatively, they’re cast as agency-less victims to be pitied instead of individuals with complex needs. Poverty also inspires genuine empathy, which is heartening. But being faced with poverty, particularly homelessness, makes people uncomfortable. The Kappa Delta party was so offensive because it highlighted a very privileged group—college students—completely making fun of an extremely disadvantaged group. It also cast poverty as a source of amusement, not a serious social problem.
The sad part about this party is that the people who went probably thought they were being subversive. True subversiveness would be to rail against the status quo and change the poverty system in America. Getting hammered and trashing homeless people isn’t “transgressive.” It’s ignorant.