An Invitation to the Compton Cookout

James Baldwin

A week ago news broke about a party attended by some white students from UC San Diego. It was called the Compton Cookout and it was timed to take place during black history month. Male invitees were supposed to dress and talk like Compton homeboys. Women, attending the party, were supposed to act like “ghetto chicks” by talking loudly and wearing cheap clothing.

The party caused a great commotion which culminated, a week later, in somebody hanging a noose in the University library. The noose incident was simultaneously more serious and less serious than the Compton Cookout. It was a true threat and a crime under California law. But it was the act of one or two people, not a group, and one that can’t be written off by anyone as kids just being kids.

When the story of the Compton Cookout hit the newspaper the response of the university administration was predictable and appropriate. Chancellor Marye Anne Fox denounced the party in grave tones as she met for a couple of hours with black students. The black students, also predictably, told her what she did and said weren’t enough.

The Compton Cookout is the kind of event whose meaning is immediately trivialized or aggrandized, depending on who’s reacting to it. To whites it was just a bunch of frat kids acting like morons. To blacks it’s one example a profound racism that runs through society. Both of them are probably half right.

Lots of writers have pondered America’s original sin of racism. One of those writers was James Baldwin who said, “The white man needs the nigger because he can’t tolerate the nigger in himself.” Maybe the white kids who went to the Compton Cookout were longing to express a part of themselves they both admire and despise.

But what does the Compton Cookout mean to the rest of us? I didn’t attend the party so I don’t feel responsible for what happened there. I’m also not convinced that any other students at UCSD should be held responsible. One of the demands black students put to Chancellor Fox was that she require all undergraduates to learn “diversity sensitivity.” I don’t think students should have to attend a series of lectures about racism on account of one incident they had nothing to do with.

But I will say this.

When we poke fun at others, the object of our fun-making can be an issue. I remember when a veteran golfer named Fuzzy Zoeller commented on Tiger Woods’s 1997 Masters tournament victory, which allowed Woods to choose the menu at the Masters Champion Dinner. Fuzzy joked that someone should tell Tiger not to serve fried chicken and collard greens. K-Mart and Dunlop ended their sponsorship of Fuzzy after that.

I’ve wondered what would have happened if Woods had been British and Zoeller had joked that he shouldn’t serve mashed potatoes and kidney pie. Would Dunlop have stopped sponsoring him for that? Of course not. It’s a double standard. But there’s a reason for it.

High status and large numbers are a great salve for the pain of being mocked. Holding black folks up to ridicule in the UCSD community, as they did at the Compton Cookout, is like picking on the small kid in the schoolyard. The same is true of making fun of Indians by turning them into sports mascots who look and act ridiculous.

By contrast, the University of Notre Dame has never been criticized for having a mascot who’s a goofy Irish Leprechaun with his dukes up. In that case, the white Irish Catholics at Notre Dame are making fun of themselves, and that’s okay!

The best ways to avoid the insults and the pain of race and class conflict is pretty simple. Practice love and understanding. Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you. Walk a mile in another one’s shoes. That may sound simplistic, even cliché. But it’s a proven formula that requires neither money nor a new set of curricula.

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One Comment on “An Invitation to the Compton Cookout”

  1. Jim Fudge Says:

    Tom, Not surprised. You hit the nail on the head as usual. I know I’m your dad and of course I’d be in your corner, but I’ve read your writings and learned a heck of a lot during your ten years as the host of ‘These Days.” in fact, during that time, i forgot that the host was my son and enjoyed the shows as an ordinary listener. Yes, i too was surprised and saddened that a great UC university would have those within it student body who would reflect racial tendencies. Well spoken (written)!

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