The Collegian
Tuesday, November 28, 2023

The real issue with blackface

Blackface. It's the "issue du jour" and it's on everyone's minds.

Was it wrong for that student to choose a costume from a performance style steeped in racism? Obviously. Should the student be punished for his actions? If punishment includes being forced to attend social justice workshops as offered by the Allies Institute, sure. Why not? But all of this hullabaloo about "unacceptable behavior" and the heinousness of this clearly misguided Halloween costume is a bit hitting the nail on its side.

To take an incident like this and to hold it up as an example of why blackface should be considered unacceptable at our school is to make blackface the central issue of the discourse when, in reality, it's not blackface that's the real problem, it's racism. The discussion I have heard on the subject has reminded me of the ever-popular and perpetually "controversial" use of the "N-word" and the other "F-word." Who can say it? Who can't? Should we put a moratorium on its usage? I am reminded of the ever-brilliant Whoopi Goldberg, who commented on this issue during a recent stand-up program, broadcast on Bravo. She emphasized that the N-word is just a word — six little letters strung together. No different from "stupid" (which Goldberg finds more objectionable). You can prevent people from using the N-word all you want, but it doesn't stop people from thinking hate.

Some will be quick to point out that it is not issues of feelings of racial hate that are at hand, which might exonerate the student who may or may not have had ill intent, but rather it is the possibility that African American students would be offended and hurt at the sight of a white man with dark make-up. I do not contest that the sight of some white jerk dressed up as a black person for Halloween would offend not only black students but a wide variety of students. But I would like to point out that even if the blackfaced student stayed exclusively in the company of white students (an unfortunately viable assumption on this campus), the damage would still be done, if not exacerbated by an all-white audience. In fact, blackface historically was performed exclusively for white audiences. It's arguable that blackface seen by white people is more problematic than blackface seen by black people, because black people know that those racist stereotypes are false. Their embodied experiences as non-white people would be indicative of that fact. The problem is closer-linked to white-propagated symbols of racial superiority.

The severity with which this community and its administration has come down on the use of blackface is indicative of a larger systemic problem of misguided non-racism. I specifically use "non-racist" to connote the reactionary anxiety of proving that one is not racist, as opposed to anti-racist, which implies a pro-active resistance to racist systems. If blackface is to be deemed "unacceptable behavior," then what about Confederate flags that populate many a dorm room and apartment? Surely, to venerate a governmental force that not only condoned but actively encouraged the enslavement of African Americans would be seen as equally unacceptable. In fact, I would be willing to wager that if we dug deep into the history of this institution, we would find many a name of openly racist individuals, perhaps even a name affixed to a university structure (idle assumptions, I am sure).

My point is that condemning blackface because "it is blackface and blackface is wrong," is reductive and even worse, it is unproductive. In fact, it avoids addressing actual issues of racism and continues to perpetuate a status quo at this university, which fosters an environment of uniformity and conformity. Why aren't we talking about how (at least in my experience) the vast majority of Asian and Latina/Latino students at this university are either adopted or are international students (please note: I, in no way, intend to slight adopted or international students, but Latina/Latino Americans are the largest minority in the nation yet are so grossly underrepresented on campus); or how our insanely high tuition will disproportionately affect non-white students who make up the majority of the American poor. Let's not waste time shouting over make-up and start talking about the real issues.

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