When fourth year UVA student Teddy Nelson and his two roommates decided to host their second party of the semester, they only wanted to provide a good time for themselves and their friends, they say. Instead, they stumbled into a racial controversy that burned for a couple of weeks.
“For our first party, we played music that was good to listen to, so that people could just sit and talk,” Nelson says. When he was planning the second party, he adds, many people told him they’d rather have dance music. So Nelson and his roommates elected to play “mainstream” hip-hop music, and taking it one step further, made hip-hop the theme.
“Callin’ all playaz and chickenheadz,” read the email sent to every undergraduate and graduate student in the architecture school inviting them to attend the March 1 party (which was not school-sponsored) in an apartment on Madison Avenue, and to dress as a hip-hopper.
“You don’t think about your theme being wrong or right,” Nelson explains. “If you had a rock ‘n’ roll party, it’s not commentary on rock ‘n’ roll. Or a mobster party. It just gives people something to dress up for.”
Though Nelson claims several of his black friends were not bothered by the invitation and did attend what has come to be called “The Medallion Party” in costume, a separate group of black students arrived with a camera. Nelson and his friends believed the group had just come to have a good time— they even posed with the group in a series of pictures— but the group had actually come to document what its members felt was just one more incident of subtle or not-so-subtle racism at UVA, perpetuated every time white students host parties with stereotypically black themes.
The controversy had begun.
Within a week of the party, the Cavalier Daily ran an editorial by Tim Lovelace, a black attendee offended by what he saw.
“Their overtly racist caricatures of black life were modern versions of the minstrel shows of the past,” Lovelace wrote. “The violent, 40-oz.-guzzling African American with a huge medallion, ‘do-rag,’ and several tattoos is a stereotype no less hurtful than minstrel shows’ depictions of the Mammy or Sambo.”
Nearly two weeks later, on March 20, white Cavalier Daily associate editor Anthony Dick responded with an equally impassioned view. Lovelace’s claims “fuel racial tension, create unfounded anger, and ultimately increase the self-segregation that die-hard diversity advocates are always so loudly lamenting,” Dick wrote.
“The malt-liquor drinking and medallion wearing that took place at the Architecture School party,” continued Dick, “are no more a part of black culture than trailer-park scenes of domestic violence, alcoholism, and repeated shirtless appearances on the TV show Cops are a part of white culture.”
The very next day, a letter written to the paper criticized Dick for refusing to recognize racism as “a coiled snake rearing its ugly head at our very University….”
And so it went, until March 28 when the black fraternity Iota Phi Theta, whose mission is to promote community service and positive change, organized a powwow entitled “Partying While White.” The forum brought black and white students together to begin a dialogue that Nelson hopes will be ongoing.
Nelson says that the chance to explain his side of the story to the packed Maury Hall auditorium, while hearing the feelings of the students who were offended by the party, was productive.
“We just want something positive to come out of it,” he says, and he now believes that it will.
And he says he’s learned an important lesson: “Even people like me who aren’t racist can end up offending people accidentally.”