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The Compton Cookout And Pop Culture

I've been a little preoccupied by the evolving story of the "Compton Cookout," an off-campus party organized, in part, by members of the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity at UCSD, and possibly by a rapper, radio host, and comedian (?) who goes by the name Jiggaboo Jones.

According to (ahem) Mr. Jones, the cookout was a DVD-release party and shouldn't be called racist. You can watch his video statements saying as much (definitely NSFW and ridiculously offensive):

I'm suspicious of Mr. Jones' timing (and entire existence), coming out as the party organizer this late in the story. After all, what a perfect way to generate publicity for his DVD.

Either way, Jiggaboo Jones' entree into the Compton Cookout controversy only slightly changes the conversation. Now, white, privileged, frat boys aren't the only villains in the story. An African-American man is part of the offending equation.

But a self-stereotyping showman and opportunist like Jones will be sad to learn that his provocations are being overshadowed by the infamous UCSD tabloid called The Koala. You gotta move fast in this world; just when you think you've got the limelight shining right on you, someone or some group shows up, tops your provocations, and suddenly it's lights out.

I'd like to step out of the realm of the self-styled, self-made provocateurs and go back to the original party. I'm interested in the pop culture influences informing this event. I want to be clear: I'm not suggesting that popular culture is to blame for the Compton Cookout or, for that matter, Jiggaboo Jones.

But I do think pop culture and the media diet of today's average college student is at work in this mess, mixing it up with the old culprits of racism, class, privilege and, good old-fashioned juvenile bone-headedness.

The invitation for the cookout, originally posted on Facebook, is shocking to those of us who attended college during the hey-day of political correctness (much of the language is pulled from a popular website called Urban Dictionary). But a fair amount of today's pop culture strives for political incorrectness. It is the bread and butter of comedians like Sarah Silverman, Bill Maher, and Seth McFarlane. And they're equal opportunity offenders.

When I was growing up, the media landscape was more streamlined, and outside of sketch comedy shows, you had to search for that kind of satire. Today, it's everywhere. That's not a bad thing, in fact, it often brings me great joy. But not all of it is well done. And the good and the bad informs the personal expression of young people today, with plenty of misfires.

Today's 19-year-old college student was born in 1991. Gangsta rap was emerging as a mainstream music sensation, confirmed as such with Death Row records. Jiggaboo Jones certainly owes his persona to one of gangsta rap's founders, the incomparable Eazy-E, who died tragically in 1995 (when our college student is just 4 years old!)

More broadly, by the time our student turns 10, hip-hop dominates pop culture, and continues to do so for years to come (with various subgenres and iterations). In fact, this student spends much of his youth in a pop music and cultural mileau dominated by black culture.

In 2003, cultural critic and author of "Hip-Hop America," Nelson George tells the Boston Globe: "There have been moments in history when black music has exploded in the consciousness of the country, like Motown in the mid-'60s. What's so interesting in this case is that hip-hop has become the new mainstream. Mom and Pop at home don't get it, but truth is it's as important to the generation coming of age as the Beatles and disco was."

The pop culture of my teen years was an '80s mix of hair bands, leg warmers, John Hughes movies, and Prince. To a certain degree, I feel like I own those images and cultural phenomena. I had to suffer through them, I embraced them from time to time, celebrated them in others (Prince!!). Therefore, I feel like they are open to my ridicule and derision, so mixed up are they with my own personal memories and bursts of rebellion.

I wonder if today's white college student feels the same ownership over various strains of hip hop culture and a certain lamentable ease with black stereotypes.

The term "ghetto fabulous" has plenty of currency in pop culture (see early versions like the movie B.A.P.S.) In 2006, law students at the University of Texas at Austin held a "Ghetto Fabulous" party, which was met with a response from black students and the university similar to that of UCSD's.

Nick Transier, a first-year student who attended the Austin party and posted pictures online, said "nobody meant to offend anyone of any race. We had no intention by any measure to choose a group or class of people and make fun of them."

Really? How is that possible? It's possible if your radar has been blunted by a familiarity with those stereotypes and a failure to see their cultural and political weight.

As I noted earlier, also contributing to the cultural diet of our hypothetical college student is a media landscape saturated with satire.

In April of 1991, Comedy Central is launched. By the time our 19-year-old college student is interested in the news, he or she gets it smartly delivered and heavily seasoned with satire and humor through "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report."

The animated sitcom "Family Guy" hits the airwaves in 1999, but becomes increasingly popular in the mid-2000s. Seth McFarlane's creation is "The Simpsons" for today's college set, though "Family Guy" is much nastier, ribald, and regularly plays with racial taboos. "Family Guy" is currently the second most popular watched show on Hulu, and if you don't know what Hulu is, ask the closest 19-year-old.

This is only a tiny slice of the pop culture pie digested by today's average college student (I didn't even mention reality tv-shows!) Again, I'm not suggesting that's a bad thing. Instead, it provides one window into how a young person might find various stereotypes fair game (so-called "white trash" parties are common and based on stereotypes of poor whites).

The students who participated in the Compton Cookout are being called, at worst, racist, and at best, racially insensitive. While they only have themselves to blame, it's interesting to consider how this generation has come to understand race, what they consider taboo, and how pop culture informs their perspective.

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