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Memphis campus community talks about racial issues and slurs

A Sigma Phi Epsilon member opened the fraternity’s routine at Pi Phi Karaoke Night with a racial slur, causing the University of Memphis to have another campus-wide open conversation. 

Pi Beta Phi hosted their annual Pi Phi Karaoke Night on Friday, where sororities and fraternities got to compete in a dance competition. Sig Ep competed and then was disqualified after a member used a racial slur before performing Kanye West’s song “N****s in Paris.”  

After this incident, the university sent out an email announcing a “Let’s Talk” session Monday and stating this does not reflect U of M’s values as an institution.

The conversation opened with Darrell Ray, vice president of student affairs, explaining why the discussion is in place and why the audience should listen carefully. Sally Parish, associate dean of student leadership and involvement, then opened the floor to the audience.  

Katarion Rose, who identified herself as a member of the U of M’s NAACP chapter, was the first student to speak and said there needs to be action. 

“I’ll be the first to say it,” Rose said. “As a member of the NAACP, we are asking that their chapter be suspended until they complete a diversity inclusion workshop. We ask this because the comment that was made was very offensive, and the fact that it was so easy to come out means that you’re too comfortable with the term.” 

Garrett Barnes, an audience member and chief clerk of the Student Government Association, said the audience must engage and realize not everyone knows how to word certain phrases. 

“If someone does miscommunicate something, if you have that knowledge or training, be willing to speak up in this room,” Barnes said. “This is the time to educate and help them on how to communicate those things because maybe they just don’t know.” 

Some audience members stood up to ask Sig Ep and Pi Phi why the incident happened and what the most effective path would be to make sure it does not happen in the future.

Lauren Russell, chapter advisor of Pi Phi, said nothing like the incident ever happened before, and they would do their best to make sure it does not happen again. 

“We’re finding ourselves in a new space,” Russell said. “We’ve never been here before. We have a lot of accountability to reflect upon going forward. We need to make some changes to be more respectful and have a different accountability process.” 

An audience member stood up and said she had not heard from a Sig Ep yet and wants to hear their feelings on the situation. 

Riley Pope, a member of Sig Ep, read a pre-written statement on his phone and said he was not at the event. He also said the use of the “N word” was not part of the planned performance.

“I’d first like to clarify what exactly happened,” Pope said. “The song in question was not chosen individually. In the transcript for the song, a member of Sig Ep was to have a monologue with the crowd. The plan was for him to come on and say, ‘Now I’m going to chill with my Sig Eps in Paris.’” 

The rest of session was spent discussing the power of the “N word,” and how it stems from a derogatory and dehumanizing history.  

After the “Let’s Talk” session, the Lighthouse party running for Student Government Association hosted a “Safe Space,” a student-led discussion, in the University Center atrium. Students were able to stand around each other and speak about how they felt and what should happen next. 

Antonio Scott, a member of the Lighthouse party, said they held the event to better understand how to move forward from the incident. 

“This was absolutely necessary after the campus’ ‘Let’s Talk’ because we can’t be your voice if we’re not coming together and talking about what we can do,” Scott said. “I would be naïve in saying that everyone walked away learning something, but I feel like if we were able to educate at least one student, then it was productive.” 

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