Letter to the Editor: Response to Kappa and ZBT’s ‘Jail N’ Bail’ event

Student Collective

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As reported in The Daily earlier this week, members of Kappa Kappa Gamma acquired orange jumpsuits to wear during their philanthropic fundraiser, “Jail N’ Bail,” co-hosted with Zeta Beta Tau. Kappa members personalized the jumpsuits and mimicked gang-affiliated inmates in their photo promoting the event. However, in the starkly different reality of the prison system in the United States, the orange jumpsuit is forced upon prisoners to dehumanize them and efficiently subjugate them to the authority of the state. Though the intentions of these Greek organizations may have been playful, the symbolism and context of their actions deserve scrutiny.

The fundraiser was intended to benefit Reading is Fundamental, which seeks “to motivate young children to read” but identifies its “highest priority” as “reaching underserved children from birth to age 8.” In his book “Who Are The Criminals,” Northwestern Prof. John Hagan addresses mass incarceration and its effect on families: “as imprisonment has become a normal life for disadvantaged young black men, paternal imprisonment has also become ‘common place’ for their children.” He provides the staggering statistic that between 1980 and 2000, one in five Black children had an incarcerated father. According to the Department of Justice, Black and Latino children are 7.5 and 2.5 times more likely than white children, respectively, to have a parent in prison. Panhellenic Association and Interfraternity Council groups are disproportionately white, as was documented in a recent article by The Daily and as is common knowledge to NU students. Kappa and ZBT’s decision to raise money for disadvantaged children by parodying the very system that oppresses these parents and families demonstrates the harm that can result from communities failing to take into account their own privilege. As Rachel Gladney wrote on Facebook in response to the event, “Privilege detaches and dissociates and gives one the opportunity to ignore the real and lived marginalization that people of color experience.”

The prison population in the United States is disproportionately composed of people of color. Academic and community-based work on the school to prison pipeline and mass incarceration have documented the systemic causes of this disparity: briefly, institutional racism and racialized implementation of police and legal practices. Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow,” provides the statistic that “more African American men are in prison or jail, on probation or parole, than were enslaved in 1850, before the Civil War began.”

Angela Davis writes that “the prison system … preserves existing structures of racism (and) creates more complicated modes of racism” in the United States today. We might consider how Kappa members’ choice to dress up as prisoners, a callous performance demonstrating a disregard for the lived reality of incarcerated people, perpetuates racial logics of criminality. Throwing gang signs when performing criminality affirms an understood connection between communities of color and carcerality. A white woman can safely throw a gang sign as a parody of communities of color, much as she might throw her sorority sign, without concern for being marked as a criminal. People of color do not have that privilege of presumed innocence, as was shown recently when a CNN iReport accused Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson of throwing a gang sign when he was actually making the Kappa Alpha Psi sign.

Kappa, ZBT, and others have reacted to expressions of anger at the event, primarily voiced by students of color, by distancing themselves from the event and its implications. In a statement quoted by The Daily, ZBT claimed that “oversight of the racial and socioeconomic issues associated with” the event caused them “to withdraw from the event as previously planned.” Kappa issued a brief and unconvincing apology, and the vast majority of campus simply stayed silent or complained of the rudeness and anger of the students who spoke out about the event. However, as Audre Lorde explains, “when we turn from anger we turn from insight, saying we will accept only the designs already known, deadly and safely familiar.” We must stop policing the tone and civility of critiques that come from rightfully angry people and instead listen to “the content of what is said with at least as much intensity as we defend ourselves against the manner of saying.” This event and its reception can become an opportunity for positive change on our campus if students’ objections to it are taken seriously.

Friday, you will see another action taking place on campus, an action that expresses anger and illuminates how embedded racism and classism in our society influenced the Kappa event that was scheduled to happen the same day. When you see our event and the anger it expresses, you may feel uncomfortable, you may feel guilty and you may feel defensive. Why do you feel that way? To quote Audre Lorde once more, “we cannot allow our fear of anger to deflect us nor seduce us into settling for anything less than the hard work of excavating honesty.” We can begin this work by questioning the assumptions behind our initial reactions and pushing ourselves to have difficult conversations. It might make you uncomfortable, but it might also make our campus a better place.

We have provided only a brief description of why the event itself was offensive.  More information can easily be found in these sources:


Sarah Bridgewaters, Mellon Mays Fellow, MIXED – External Relations

Dalia Fuleihan, Students for Justice in Palestine

Moira Geary, Students for Justice in Palestine

Heather Menefee, co-chair of the Coalition of Colors

Darien Wendell

Matthew Wright, president/Editor in Chief of Pulse Magazine and president of Out Da Box

Stephanie Medina, MEChA de Northwestern, Pulse Magazine editor

Amina Dreessen, director of community engagement, Sustained Dialogue Leadership Team

Lucero Segundo, MEChA de Northwestern

Maria Marquez, MEChA de Northwestern

Imtisal Khokher, former administrative vice president, McSA

Cinthya Rodriguez, MEChA de Northwestern

Cristina Quiroz, MEChA de Northwestern

Sarah Carthen Watson, coordinator of FMO

Thaddeus Tukes, NABJ president, Pulse Magazine editor, RSGM president

Liliana Bonilla

Alondra Almaraz, MEChA de Northwestern

Yaritza Sandoval

Sarah Oberholtzer

Kevin Luong, APAC

Theanne Liu, APAC, College Feminists

Carrie Hsieh, APAC

Isabel Sturla, College Feminists

Arielle Zimmerman, College Feminists

Michelle Lega, Sex Week co-director