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OP-ED: The shame of Dixie dress-up

Sharon Rosen Leib
Los Angeles Times
FILE - In this Jan. 12, 2018 file photo, Virginia Gov.-elect, Lt. Gov Ralph Northam, center, walks down the reviewing stand with Lt. Gov-elect, Justin Fairfax, right, and Attorney General Mark Herring at the Capitol in Richmond, Va. The political crisis in Virginia exploded Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019, when the state's attorney general confessed to putting on blackface in the 1980s and a woman went public with detailed allegations of sexual assault against the lieutenant governor. With Northam's career already hanging by a thread over a racist photo, the day's developments threatened to take down all three of Virginia's top elected officials. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

I can’t cast any stones at Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam. Like him, I committed the sin of making a shameful costume choice in my youth. My regrettable behavior occurred at UC Berkeley in 1982, when I attended the Kappa Alpha Order’s Dixie Ball.

How did a native Southern Californian Jewish girl like me end up at a frat party wearing an antebellum ball gown complete with hoop skirt in celebration of antiquated Southern values? Back then, I was a 19-year-old sophomore casually dating a sweet blond-haired, blue-eyed Kappa Alpha guy. He invited me to be his date for Dixie Ball, a weekend event in Monterey capped by a Southern Confederacy theme dance. My sorority elders informed me that an invitation to Dixie Ball was an honor bestowed upon the lucky few.

One of my sorority sisters drove me and a few other “lucky” gals to a San Francisco costume shop to rent our elaborate Southern belle gowns. I remember thinking this all seemed weird and expensive. But as I gazed at myself in the costume shop mirror dressed like a comely Southern maiden, I fantasized about Clark Gable breaking a door down and lifting me into his arms.

We donned our “Gone with the Wind” satin get-ups for the ball and danced the night away with our dates, who wore rented blue-gray Confederate soldier uniforms. Plenty of photos documenting the event exist in private fraternity/sorority collections — a mortifying thought because Dixie Ball proved to be as regressive as its name suggests. No African American students attended the festivities. If they had, I doubt we would have behaved so thoughtlessly.

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According to Kappa Alpha bylaws in effect then, “Dixie Ball has evolved since 1920 as a traditional social function of the Order with the purpose to celebrate and to perpetuate the social attributes of courtesy, graciousness, and open hospitality, which are values of the Old South and were prominent in Virginia when our Order was founded in 1865.” The bylaws fail to mention that this leisurely “graciousness” was built on the backs of African American slaves.

In 1982, Berkeley’s Kappa Alpha chapter house on Piedmont Avenue, founded in 1895, still had the reproduction of a Civil War cannon outside its front door and a Confederate flag hanging in the living room. The fraternity had no African American members, nor did my sorority. UC Berkeley’s student body was 5.6 percent African American and, with few exceptions, the Greek system self-segregated.

Has Greek system racism improved since then? Consider this: In February 2010, a group of UC San Diego students held an off-campus “Compton Cookout” party to mock Black History Month. The hosts encouraged partygoers to dress the part of Compton rappers by wearing baggy clothes, fake gold teeth, etc.

In March 2015, a video surfaced of University of Oklahoma Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) fraternity members aboard a party bus singing, “There will never be a (racial epithet) SAE.” This horrid clip exposed frat boys run despicably amok.

I bear my own shame. After imbibing a few drinks at Dixie Ball, I joined in singing “Way down south in the land of cotton” from the Southern folk song. I can’t imagine now what we were thinking. Bottom line: We were ignorant, insensitive and wrong.

We weren’t thinking as individuals. We engaged in thoughtless Greek-system groupthink, casually and carelessly reenacting racist traditions. Since then, Kappa Alpha Order has banned the display of Confederate flags (in 2001), the wearing of Confederate uniforms (in 2010) and any references to Dixie Ball, Old South or other Civil War-period nomenclature (in 2016). Better really late than never.

Education, maturity and time enable aging baby boomers like me to understand where we went wrong and atone for our mistakes. I’ve shared my stories of the bad old days with my three daughters (ages 24, 23, and 19), who are shocked their progressive mama could’ve been that stupid. Raising awareness lays the groundwork for banishing racially offensive costumes and appalling party themes from campus social life.

As for Gov. Northam, I cast this advice in lieu of stones: Whether or not it was you wearing the KKK garb or blackface in the medical school yearbook photo, use your moment in the national spotlight to help heal our nation’s racial wounds.

As a physician, you took an oath to do no harm. Please stop equivocating, acknowledge slavery’s excruciating legacy and help lift us out of the Dixie muck we’ve been stuck in far too long.

— Sharon Rosen Leib is a freelance journalist and contributing writer to the San Diego Jewish Journal.