Hosted by the Swarthmore Queer Union (SQU), Swarthmore African Student Association (SASA), Swarthmore ENLACE, and the Swarthmore African-American Student Society (SASS), the party at Paces the Saturday before Thanksgiving welcomed diversity more than most. After all, typical Swat parties include an outsized number of white students (many of whom are athletes), making it harder for marginalized groups to feel welcome. Four affinity clubs hosting the party meant that more queer and BIPOC were likely to attend.
As the number of students at the party swelled, however, the organizers decided to clean house over fears of overcrowding. Specifically, it was time to kick out the white people. What followed was a message blaring through the speakers from Google Translate that looped for several minutes on end — telling white students to leave. By the time the message stopped playing, the party’s racial demographics had shifted significantly, and white students comprised a considerably smaller proportion of the remaining party-attendees. The message had been received loud and clear.
To be fair, the organizers were in a lose-lose situation. The party may have intended to center marginalized groups on campus, and there are two main ways to achieve this. For one, students can create safe spaces that are occupied solely by the affinity groups. Alternatively, they can make a more concerted effort to include affinity groups (e.g. queer, Black, Latinx students, etc.) within settings occupied by non-marginalized people (i.e. white people).
In trying to do both simultaneously, the party did an insufficient job of either and it is fair to question whether telling white students to leave through a text-to-speech software loop is the optimal solution to creating a more inclusive party. More importantly, kicking students out based on race is not the right approach for a number of reasons.
To begin with, as SGO sanctioned clubs hosting parties, they are contractually obligated not to discriminate on the basis of identity. Furthermore, it is difficult to enforce limitations on who gets to be a part of an affinity group and who does not. Especially when it comes to groups such as SQU, there is no objective metric that can be used to validate one’s inclusion. Whiteness does not preclude people from being queer or Latinx. This uncertainty is exacerbated by the fact that even after the message stopped playing, there were still a significant number of white students at the party. It is highly unlikely that all of them were queer. As such, the message created an incentive for students to falsely identify with a marginalized identity.
A party organized and controlled by marginalized groups has the potential to be a space where marginalized groups are centered while still in the presence of white people. Through a stronger presence of marginalized groups and the ability to play more inclusive music, this party could have realized this potential. Instead, white students were kicked out — discriminating based on race, which only sowed further division on campus at a time when such issues are especially salient.
When it comes to including marginalized groups — like those represented by the hosts at Paces on Saturday night — students’ approaches are often at odds with each other. We want safe spaces that are exclusively occupied by a given marginalized group. At the same time, we want to do more to center marginalized groups in settings occupied by white people, which would necessitate interaction between marginalized groups and white people. Racial exclusion, however, does not contribute to either and goes against the type of community we strive to cultivate at Swat.
The organizers’ decision to tell white people to leave is an example of these conflicting approaches. By kicking white students out after they had already entered, the organizers created a “safe space” that was not really a safe space. After all, not everyone who stayed at the party belonged to the affinity groups. Meanwhile, the groups hosting the party also squandered a prime opportunity to center marginalized voices. When white people came into a space that was controlled by affinity groups of marginalized people, they were told to leave, breaking up a space that was centering marginalized people in the presence of a dominant group.
Racial exclusion and trying to achieve the equilibrium ratio of white:BIPOC at a party only creates an illusion of equality. It creates a temporary feeling of control for some and resentment for others when we could be using such events to create spaces that center marginalized groups and welcome allies simultaneously. Furthermore, it strengthened the perception that in settings where marginalized groups are in a central position, there is no space for white students. By acting in a manner that suggests there cannot be a space that centers marginalized groups while accommodating another dominant group, the hosts ended up creating the worst of both worlds.