The Compton Cookout: A Day Party to be Remembered (or Not)

In the Winter 2010, UCSD students affiliated with PIKE and other fraternities hosted “The Compton Cookout,” a racist party that mocked Black people. The student protest was swift in response. Photo courtesy of John Im & MG Abugan. 2010.

A Day Party to be Remembered

“February marks a very important month in American society,” read the Facebook invitation.

The invite told guests what to expect: “We will be serving 40’s, Kegs of Natty, dat Purple Drank- which consists of sugar, water, and the color purple, chicken, coolade, and of course Watermelon.”

The hosts asked guests to be ready to experience “the various elements of life in the ghetto,” detailing exactly what guests should wear: “FUBU, Ecko, Rockawear” for men, and “short, nappy hair” for women, or “Ghetto chicks.”

They asked women attending to “act similar to Shenaynay, and speak very loudly, while rolling their neck, and waving their finger in your face.”

On February 15, 2010, a party was hosted. No, the invitation clarified, this party would not be about Valentine’s Day or Presidents Day.

It would begin at 1PM.

It would be “a time to celebrate.”

It would be in honor of Black History Month.

“So come one and come all, make ya self before we break ya self, keep strapped, get yo shine on, and join us for a day party to be remembered- or not.”

“In hopes of showing respect,” the invitation reads, “the Regents community cordially invites you to its very first Compton Cookout.”

The “Stupid Mistake” of 2010

Nearly two years after the election of the our Nation’s first Black president, UCSD students affiliated with Pi Kappa Alpha (PIKE) and other fraternities hosted “The Compton Cookout,” a racist party that stereotyped, mocked, and belittled Black people.

In part the event that inspired the movie Dear White People (which is soon to be adapted into a Netflix original series), the 2010 party and its aftermath would define much of the next seven years at UCSD.

Although the party was immediately denounced by then-Chancellor Marye-Anne Fox, several events understandably exacerbated the situation. Former Koala Newspaper Editor Kris Gregorian called the students protesting “ungrateful niggers” on UCSD’s (now defunded) closed circuit TV network.

Another student was suspended after making a “stupid mistake” by leaving her “friends” noose in Geisel Library just days after the party.

The media reaction and statewide condemnation of the events was swift and uncompromising. Isadore Hall, the former State Assembly Member from Compton, publicly condemned the party for promoting negative stereotypes. With regards to the hosts, Hall demanded “full accountability for their actions.”

Then President of PIKE, Gary Engstrom, clarified “that the party was neither planned nor endorsed by the social club.”

The Associate Vice Chancellor (AVC) of Student Life had a starkly different take on what had happened.

“It was not an official PIKE event, but the students who posted it on Facebook were members of PIKE and other frats,” AVC of Student Life Gary Ratcliff told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2010.

Students protest on library walk, holding up “Real Pain” and “Real Action” signs. Photo courtesy of John Im & MG Abugan. 2010.

Students protest on library walk, holding up “Real Pain” and “Real Action” signs. Photo courtesy of John Im & MG Abugan. 2010.

Students crowd Price Center in protest. Photo courtesy of John Im & MG Abugan. 2010.

Students crowd Price Center in protest. Photo courtesy of John Im & MG Abugan. 2010.

If the event was tied to an official house, then perhaps the fraternity could have been held responsible. But because UC San Diego does not have an official Greek Row, many parties are known to occur in the Regents Condominiums. None of these parties are ever “endorsed.”

Because it wasn’t a “sanctioned event,” University officials didn’t have any reason to penalize the party hosts.

Real Pain, Real Action

When Fnann Keflezighi started at UCSD in 2008, she was almost always the only Black student in her lecture halls.

“Over 300 kids and I’m the only one…” she said in a 2013 video. “We talk about the history of race and identity and the history of the United States and Civil Rights… TA’s in section would direct their attention to me as kind of this pressure to speak on behalf of all Black people.”

At the time, Black students comprised only 0.7 percent of the student body.

Thurgood Marshall College, one of UCSD’s six residential colleges, was originally created to give representation to Black and Brown students. Ironically, Keflezighi was the only Black student in her Marshall residential hall.

When Keflezighi entered her junior year in 2010, now as the Co-Chair of the Black Student Union, acts of  racism and stereotyping that were once just visible to students like Keflezighi were now visible to the  entire campus.

Student organizers spearheaded by the Black Student Union (BSU) and Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA), immediately took to Library Walk in protest in the wake of the Compton Cookout.

The BSU published their “STATE OF EMERGENCY: THE UCSD BLACK STUDENT UNION ADDRESS,” a set of demands targeting the “hostile and toxic campus climate being faced by various communities of color.” The demands requested, among several things, that the Chicano Legacy mural in Marshall become a permanent fixture and pushed for the “establishment of the African American resource center, a Chican@ Resource Center and a Native American Resource Center.”

Fnann Keflezighi during the protests. Photo courtesy of John Im & MG Abugan. 2010.

Fnann Keflezighi during the protests. Photo courtesy of John Im & MG Abugan. 2010.

“The University had to recognize that this is real pain that we’re feeling,” Keflezighi explained. “It’s not just one incident. It’s not for you to have sympathy or pity us.”

A visibly distraught Chancellor Fox stood among the crowd on Library Walk, holding a loose folio of papers, as students chanted:

“Real pain!”

“Real action!”

In an attempt to soothe student anger and provide some sense of normalcy, the campus administration sponsored a “teach-in” where professors would be able to educate the student body about the event and the harm it caused.  

“I remember feeling like many of the campus responses, like the teach-in, were shallow because students’ thoughts and experiences weren’t centered,” said Maureen Gladys Abugan, who photographed the student actions.

Abugan also remembers the “business-as-usual” silence throughout the day and during class. “I strongly believe that much of my and other’s’ experiences, as students who actively responded to the Compton Cookout and the events surrounding it, were traumatic.”

Abugan, who was also an Office of Academic Support & Instructional Services (OASIS) Mentor at the time, remembers receiving a text from her mentee, who happened to be a first year Black female student.

“She told me she was scared, and my heart sank.”

What hurt the most about the party for some of the organizers, is that they knew some of the students that attended or helped host the party. Several protest organizers called their friends before the party happened to explain the hurt it would cause. But instead of cancelling their event they set the Facebook event to “private” and held it anyway.

Ethnic Studies Prof. Wayne Yang thought the administrative response set the tone for the campus culture:

“The teach-In puts the blame for racism on our students,” he said. “If our administration is silent about its own poor track record in race and community relations, then why would we expect students to act differently?”

Others, like Theatre Prof. Nadine George-Graves, came out to support students and speak at the teach-in. George-Graves, who teaches classes like ”African American Theater” and “The Body and Performance,” attempted to convey the impact of the event:

“The imagery described in the original party draws on a long history of stereotyping, first begun in the theatre genre of minstrelsy,” she said. “The original party invitation acts as a script… and the event itself was a rehearsal of the negotiation of power,” referring to the practice of minstrel shows, which, popularized in the 1800’s, consisted of white people acting out stereotypes in Black face.

“An advertisement for “William H. West’s” minstrel show, courtesy of Library of Congress.”

“An advertisement for “William H. West’s” minstrel show, courtesy of Library of Congress.”

Unsatisfied with the teach-in, when Keflezighi and organizer Jasmine Phillips were given the microphone, they waited until professors who had supported their movement spoke and then asked students to walk out of the room.

[Related: Prof. George-Graves Full Talk on Minstrelsy: Performance is Not Benign]

“Having people know about Blackface isn’t going to change what students of color have felt for years,” said Keflezighi.

Students demanded administrators commit to tangible changes, instead of “teach-ins,” with one student telling Chancellor Fox, “No more trying, you will do!”

Student protesters asked and then told administrators in unison: “Whose University?… our University!”

In response, Chancellor Fox told students:

“We are not racist on this campus. “We will not do anything that tolerates racism on this campus.”

The chanting continued anyway.

Access and Retention

UCSD’s “Kappa Phi” PIKE chapter was founded on November 7th, 1997 “by a group of men who were not satisfied with the status quo.”

“One of the oldest Southern Fraternities following the Civil war, and the oldest Fraternal organization compromising the Virginia Circle, Pi Kappa Alpha was founded March 1st 1868 at the University of Virginia,” reads the website for UCSD’s PIKE chapter.

PIKE, a “white’s only” fraternity until 1964, was founded by Frederick Southgate Taylor and Littleton Waller Tazewell Bradford. Both were members of the Confederate Army, in different capacities.

“Today, we uphold the tradition set forth by our founding fathers by remaining dedicated to developing men of integrity, intellect, success and high moral character, and to fostering a truly lifelong fraternal experience,” reads the history section of the website.

PIKE’s Public Relations Handbook, an optional guide published in December 2016 for all chapters to maintain a positive public image, explains how chapters should conduct themselves on campus. “It is truly every person’s responsibility to uphold the chapter’s image,” it reads. “Thus, if your chapter ‘just has a bad image’ for a semester/quarter or two, you can bet that image has become your chapter’s reality. That reality will determine your perceived power and standing on campus.”

Photo courtesy of John Im & MG Abugan. 2010.

Photo courtesy of John Im & MG Abugan. 2010.

So has PIKE at UCSD moved forward?

2016-2017 President of the UCSD Pi Kappa Alpha Chapter Will McMinn said that the current UCSD PIKE Chapter has focused on diversity and inclusivity. He clarified that the chapter consists of “ethnically diverse members representing fifteen different countries” and that PIKE has also made DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) workshops a focal point of their new member process.

“Our members, just as many of the students at our school, have all heard the stories but I am insistent on looking forward and not looking back,” McMinn said.

Chaz Woxland, is the 2016-2017 Community Service Chair.

For at least the last year, Woxland has signed his email signature as the “Retention Coordinator for the Black Student Union of UCSD.”

Black student retention was a key point in the BSU’s “State of Emergency” demands after the Compton Cookout and the BSU retention coordinator’s job is to focus on creating a positive environment for Black students by hosting study sessions and attending relevant meetings.

Woxland is not the Retention Coordinator of the Black Student Union, he is not a member of the Black Student Union, and he does not identify as Black.

“To me it was concerning that a member of Pi Kappa Alpha would take credit from the work of a Black Student Union member, since their fraternity, and the Greek community as a whole, has a history of anti-Blackness as we know from the Compton Cookout,” said a third year student who received an email from Woxland.

Woxland's email signature during correspondence. 1/23/2017

Woxland’s email signature during correspondence. 1/23/2017

I reached out to Woxland for clarification as to why he would identify himself as the Retention Coordinator of the BSU.

He did not return my request for comment, so I reached out to Pike President Will McMinn to see if he could clarify the situation.

He explained that he had no further comments to make. When I reached out a second time, he reiterated this:

“I appreciate you checking in,” said McMinn. “I have no further comments on the article. Goodluck with the story.”

Another University is Possible

Fnann Keflezighi, the former co-chair of the Black Student Union and organizer, started her new job in student affairs as the Assistant Dean of Residential Life at Marshall College in 2016. At UCSD, Keflezighi is the only Black Assistant Dean of Residential Life in any of the six colleges.

As a college founded on Black and Brown activism, Marshall College serves as a sensible home for the student-turned-administrator, who has centered her career on student activism and is an alumna of the college.

“I think of myself as a grassroots organizer… that works at an institution,” she said. “You’re still strategizing and helping think about creative voice to put a voice to experiences that are not often taken into consideration.”

Since Keflezighi graduated from UCSD, the campus had changed significantly. In response to the Cookout and other events around the UC system, the campus initiated the creation of the Black Resource Center, the Raza Resource Centro, and the Student Veterans Resource Center to “provide spaces for academic and social support for students and increase the feeling of campus involvement through community building.

Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Penny Rue watches student protest cover library walk. Photo courtesy of John Im & MG Abugan. 2010.

Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Penny Rue watches student protest cover library walk. Photo courtesy of John Im & MG Abugan. 2010.

Yet, when asked about the current state of the resource centers, Prof. Jorge Mariscal discussed how the administration had turned them into very different spaces than originally imagined.

“The original idea for the centers was students would learn the history, take organizing classes,” Mariscal said. “To learn the power structure of the campus and to learn how to intervene and where to intervene.”

“A lot of things we’ve accomplished here have been co-opted and turned into the opposite of what we wanted.”

The campus also instituted the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) requirement in 2011, requiring students to have “a knowledge of diversity, equity, and inclusion” before completing their undergraduate degree.

The DEI and other victories are examples of what can be done with student action, said Keflezighi. But they also created significant fault lines between organizers. The long term result of student action was not necessarily what Keflezighi anticipated. She said that coalitions broke once student groups got their own resource center or space. Some organizers became comfortable and insulated.

“There were those who just focused on the victories: the Black Resource Center, SPACES having double the funding they used to have, seeing the hard work reflected,” Keflezighi said.

“And then others who were like… okay… that and what else?”

“Moving Beyond” the Compton Cookout

As of 2016, Black students comprised 2 percent of the student population.

The Compton Cookout promised to be “a day party to be remembered.” Yet, the event is rarely referenced at UCSD by administrators or any campus records.

In 2012 the UC Undergraduate Experiences Survey (UCUES) specifically looked at campus climate before and after the 2010 Compton Cookout. They found that Black students felt both undervalued and disrespected when compared to every other group on campus. Even more distressing, the survey found that Black students would be less likely to re-enroll than every other measured group on campus. This sentiment is echoed by the 2010 protestors: throughout the actions, many Black students passed around forms to withdraw or transfer from the University.

The 2014 and 2016 UCUES removed questions that documented the attitudes of Black students, so understanding the current campus climate has become much more difficult. 

Media covers the student protest near of the Triton Statue steps. Photo courtesy of John Im & MG Abugan. 2010.

Media covers the student protest near of the Triton Statue steps. Photo courtesy of John Im & MG Abugan. 2010.

Andre Thompson, a fourth-year Political Science student with a minor in African American studies and former Retention Coordinator for the UCSD BSU, believes the campus could be doing more.

“The campus surely could do better with the amount of microaggressions that consume so many Black students’ time and energy,” said Thompson.

“The campus is lulled to sleep by the reforms of the past and it seems as if the only way a student can get justice or any security is if extremely violent overt racist actions happen, which are rare and hard to get proof of.”

As for tangible actions, he pointed to two things: one, the campus needs to deal with the lack of “teeth” in the enforcement of the Principles of Community, a guiding document created by administrators to foster a more inclusive university and two, the campus needs to recognize the effectiveness of student success workshops and resources hosted by the Black Resource Center and OASIS.

Four years after leading students in protest, Keflezighi co-authored an editorial in the San Diego Free Press, calling views to “move beyond” the event “an attempt to release newly installed administrators from their responsibilities.”

There is one book that details the history of the event, but the most accessible record of the party invitation for students to access isn’t held in Geisel Library or made readily available by the campus. Instead, it’s hosted by former students on the file sharing website SCRIBD and primarily viewed on a WordPress website created in 2010.

Elliot Van Nostrand, the event host of the Compton Cookout and the 2010-2011 External Vice President of PIKE, finished out his college career in 2014. He remained a member of PIKE until graduation and is now an analyst at Morgan Stanley. Van Nostrand did not reply to my request for comment.

After the resignation of Chancellor Fox, the incoming Chancellor said that his response to incidents like the Compton Cookout would be “putting a culture and a climate in place that does not let these situations happen.”

Yet, upon starting his job at the University, the first thing Chancellor Pradeep Khosla said when meeting history professor and activist Jorge Mariscal was: “Will you please stop talking about the Compton Cookout?”

“What does that mean?” Mariscal asked rhetorically to a recent panel. “Erase history, erase student activism.”

Whether it be a racist party or a racist email signature, big or small, what does it mean to move forward with little or no repercussion? What does it mean to stop talking about the Compton Cookout and to ignore the recent history of student activism on campus?

When former Chancellor Fox told a crowd that UCSD is not a racist campus, the voice of an angry student followed, with a pained, but clear and apprehensive voice: “This is never going to be behind us,” the student told Chancellor Fox.

The UCSD Principles of Community tell us that “our society carries historical and divisive biases.”

Perhaps then, we should not just learn and acknowledge the historical and divisive biases of our society at large, but acknowledge the long standing history of a place much closer to home:

Our University.

Gabriel Schneider is the Editor in Chief of The Triton. He can be reached at editor@triton.news.

Correction on 3/5/2017: This article previously listed Chaz Woxland as a PIKE’s Executive Board. Woxland is the Community Service Chair of PIKE, which can be held by any member.