Posts filed under Blackface

Thanks again, bro: Sigs at Whitman College go “above and beyond what other people do” for Halloween… with blackface Halloween costumes

(Story thanks to a tip from TL.)

Just about every year, right around now, I get to hear the same thing again: a bunch of students, most of them white, threw a party involving blackface costumes and other forms of crude racist caricature. It happened at Auburn–at least twice. It happened at Ole Miss. It happened at Syracuse. It happened at Oklahoma State. It happened at Stetson. It doesn’t always happen at a fraternity party, but it often does. Sometimes the kids opt for broad pastiches of gangsta images that they’ve picked up from MTV. Sometimes they opt for explicit references to the history of slavery and militant white supremacy. Sometimes–as it seems happened in Baltimore–they opt for both. The pattern is established, and the reactions are reliable. While University administrators are busy rushing to make a public example of whoever was caught throwing the party, and anxiously insisting (to anybody who cares to listen) that this is an isolated incident, not representative of the campus culture, etc. etc. etc., it’s left to those who know something about what actually goes on on campus (usually Black students or faculty) to point out, yet again, that these things happen in a broader context, that this is nothing new, that things like this happen all the time on campus, and that the only thing special about this case is that the story went public. Then a few months later, everything settles back down, the administration eases or completely reverses its disciplinary actions against the fraternity, and we wait until late next October or early next November, when exactly the same damned thing happens at yet another Halloween party somewhere else.

… Thanks a lot, guys. You have officially ruined Halloween.

— GT 2006-11-03: Thanks, bro: a racially themed frat party at Johns Hopkins University

In case you were wondering, it’s still that time of the year, and the brothers of Sigma Chi have continued their tradition of leadership and service–not only at Johns Hopkins, but also at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington:

Walking into the Survivor-themed greek party, Sigma Chi juniors Brice Crayne and Bryan Ponti could never have imagined the kind of reaction their costumes would ultimately get. They said later that they just wanted to stand out: and with their faces and bodies painted entirely black with orange markings, they certainly did. It didn’t strike them that their body paint would eventually move the entire campus to a standstill.

Senior Natalie Knott was browsing the Internet in the library when she came across photographs of Crayne and Ponti from the party. Feeling a gut reaction, Knott showed the pictures to a few friends who didn’t see much controversy.

I had to leave the library because I was really angry but I couldn’t figure out why because nobody was seeing what I saw, Knott said. She drew connections to racist archetypes, specifically the blackface minstrel shows popular in the early 1900s. After speaking for hours about the issue with friends in her apartment complex, Knott decided she should bring her concerns to a faculty member.

The next day, Knott consulted with Politics Professor Bruce Magnusson, who told her that she should show the photographs to the dean. After conferencing with student life committee chair Clare Carson for an hour, Knott decided to post her thoughts to the student listserv, at Carson’s suggestion.

The response was immediate. Feedback poured in over the listserv from minority students who felt offended, white students who felt attacked and a slew of others whose feelings fell somewhere in the middle.

— Sophie Johnson, Whitman College Pioneer (2006-10-26): ‘Blackface’ incident ignites campus

As a side note, I don’t have access to FaceBook, so I haven’t seen the photo. If any of y’all out there can find them, please feel free to pass them along to me–I think it’s important that these images be brought out into the open for public discussion.

Meheret Debebe, 19, a Whitman sophomore, said she was more offended by what she read in the listserv than by the picture.

I thought wow, I go to school with a lot of racist people, she said.

Debebe, who is black, said she has felt alienated at her school in the past.

— Maria P. Gonzalez, Walla Walla Union-Bulletin (2006-11-11): ‘Blackface’ incident has Whitman abuzz

The poor lil’ white boys and their buddies insist that they’ve gotten a bum rap. After all, hey, their intentions were pure as the driven snow–they just blacked up because they wanted to stand out (for what, exactly?). Besides, who says that in their totally non-racist minds blackface had anything in particular to do with race?

The responses that resulted from Knott’s initial e-mail ranged from passively curious to incensed. At first, the bulk of responses were from those who felt insulted by Knott’s assertions. … Whitman’s Sigma Chi president senior James Hovard was one of the first people that took issue with Knott’s e-mail. Hovard heard about the e-mail from a friend, and he produced a reply that same night.

I was a little shocked and surprised because I was at that party and the thought of Brice and Bryan dressing up in blackface never crossed my mind. I know that they wore black paint, but I never thought of it as a racial issue, Hovard said.

— Sophie Johnson, Whitman College Pioneer (2006-10-26): ‘Blackface’ incident ignites campus

Well, then.

Neither Crayne nor Ponti responded to the listserv e-mail, but both were personally affected by the incident.

I had to set up a punching bag in my room I was so mad, said Crayne: I felt like someone had passed judgment on me; someone had called me something I definitely am not, and that’s a racist.

Ponti felt similarly attacked. The individual who pointed out everything that was wrong with the pictures did not contact either me or my good friend as to our intentions, they simply wrote their e-mail in the heat of the moment and we were caught completely off guard, he said.

— Sophie Johnson, Whitman College Pioneer (2006-10-26): ‘Blackface’ incident ignites campus

God forbid anyone should ever pass judgment on your behavior, or consider what you did apart from the esoteric of what you were feeling, deep down in your heart. Gosh but it must be so hard on them to feel attacked and misrepresented by the majority.

The students, who belong to the Sigma Chi fraternity, say they never meant to insult or offend anyone.

It was never meant to be a statement, Crayne said. We’re a couple guys who like to go above and beyond what other people do.

… As for Ponti and Crayne, they have come away with a lesson.

Now that I see I offended people I’ll never do it again, Ponti said.

I can totally understand how they were offended and once I thought about it in that way I apologized. I was sorry, Crayne said.

— Maria P. Gonzalez, Walla Walla Union-Bulletin (2006-11-11): ‘Blackface’ incident has Whitman abuzz

Well, that’s mighty white of them.

Here is an old black and white photo of several white students in minstrel-show blackface, smiling at the camera and holding a banner reading 'We love the Betas.'

Whitman College Greeks in black face standing in front of the old student union building in the 1950s. From a presentation by Whitman professor Duke Richey. I’m sure none of them meant to make a statement.

Still, I can’t say that I’m particularly encouraged that college juniors think it’s a perfectly good excuse, in cases like these, to pass themselves off as too damned ignorant and thoughtless to be expected to know anything in particular about the history of race in America, or minstrel shows, or the use of blackface, or why folks just might not be entirely cool with it.

The faculty’s response has been relatively sensible: besides encouraging Knott to bring the FaceBook photos up with her fellow students, they’ve also cancelled a few classes to put on community events to teach about the history and implications of blackface. The administration, on the other hand, has taken this as a chance to boldly wring their hands about a PR disaster and take serious steps towards slapping the offending white frat boys on the wrist:

The costumes have since spurred heated discussions, seemingly divided the campus and prompted a Town Hall meeting that drew hundreds.

In the most recent response to the blackface incident, all classes were suspended Thursday while the college held a daylong symposium on race and diversity.

College takes action [sic]

In response, college President George Bridges worked with faculty and student leaders to address the tensions and to start the process of educating the campus on racial sensitivities.

Ponti and Crayne were not disciplined, but did meet with Bridges.

— Maria P. Gonzalez, Walla Walla Union-Bulletin (2006-11-11): ‘Blackface’ incident has Whitman abuzz

I’m glad they got their talking-to and all, but I can’t say that this entirely dislodges Amanda Marcotte’s question-and-answer: Where are college kids getting this idea that they should have the benefit of having their racism and sexism coddled and protected? Obviously, that’s just a rhetorical question, because I know exactly where they’re getting that idea, which is from all the authority figures who coddle and protect them.

Further reading:

Thanks, bro: a “racially themed” frat party at Johns Hopkins University

(Story thanks to a tip from Lisa Casanova.)

Campus life in America

photo: two white members of the women's softball team, in blackface, posing for the camera with gold teeth flashing and hands making gang signs

Stetson University, Halloween 2005

photo: frat brothers, one in blackface, pose a mock lynching.

Oklahoma State, September 2002

photo: white frat brothers, one in blackface, pose with the student in blackface kneeling on the floor and a student dressed as a cop pointing a prop gun at his head. Ole Miss, Halloween 2001.

Ole Miss, Halloween 2001.

photo: white Beta Theta Pi frat brothers flash gangsta poses in blackface. Auburn, Halloween 2001

Auburn, Halloween 2001.

photo: white frat brothers, one dressed in Klan robes and one in blackface, stage a mock lynching. Auburn, Halloween 2001.

Auburn, Halloween 2001.

It’s early November; that means it’s time for yet another isolated incident at a Halloween party on yet another college campus. This one comes to us thanks to the brothers of Sigma Chi at Johns Hopkins University:

BALTIMORE – Johns Hopkins University suspended a fraternity Monday afternoon following a racially themed Halloween party Saturday night at an off-campus house.

Members of the Black Student Union and supporters rallied on North Charles Street in front of the campus, speaking out against the local Sigma Chi chapter and perceived racial hostility on campus. Hopkins is investigating the party and said the national Sigma Chi fraternity has imposed a 45-day suspension of the chapter’s activities and will conduct its own investigation.

The uproar began shortly after the Halloween in the ’Hood party was advertised on the Web site Facebook.com. The invitation encouraged racial-stereotyping costumes, included references to the late attorney Johnnie Cochran and O.J. Simpson, and prefaced descriptions of Baltimore as a ghetto, the hood and the HIV pit with a four-letter epithet.

The invitation was attributed to Justin H. Park, who is listed as a Sigma Chi Class of 2008 member on the fraternity’s Web site.

Johns Hopkins said in a written statement that the Greek life coordinator had told the chapter president last week that he found the advertisement racist and offensive, and directed the fraternity to withdraw the advertising immediately, but it reappeared without the coordinator’s knowledge, in an altered but still offensive form.

… A small group of black students went to the party and said white students were dressed as pimps, prostitutes — and slaves. Outside the front door of the house in the 200 block of East 33rd Street was a plastic skeleton dressed as a pirate, hanging from a rope noose.

And then as you walked up to the house, you heard fake gunshots — as if there is a gun fight in this neighborhood every night, said freshman Blake Edwards, 18. The noose is extremely offensive and makes a mockery of the minority students that go to school here. Several of the girls I went with left in tears.

The entire city of Baltimore should be offended by this.

— Ron Cassie, The Examiner (2006-10-31): Johns Hopkins fraternity suspended after racially themed Halloween party

Here is the text of one of the invitations posted to FaceBook by Justin Park. I don’t have access to FaceBook so my information is limited, but I gather that this is the revised version:

OMG RACIST officially invites you to this delightful gaiety in honor of the last day of October, held in the exquisite metropolis paradise that we affectionately refer to as the mother-f*cking ghetto, aka the hood or as I like to call it, the hiv pit.

Refreshments include Foie Gras, Belgian Caviar, and Cambodian Breast Milk.

Ornate antique bathtubs full of Evian and Perrier will be provided for your bathing pleasure.

Admission to this bonanza is contingent on appropriate accourtrement – regional clothing from our locale is recommended. These include, but are not limited to, fur coats, copious amounts of so-called bling bling ice ice grills, hoochie hoops, white Tee’s and Air Force Onez.

There will be special accolades to those attired in the most conniving and despicable outfits.

OMG RACIST would like you to know that he does not condone or advocate racism, fascism, communism, consumerism, capitalism, terrorism, organism(s), sexism, womanism, jism, or any other -ism’s.

For the record, we would like to thank our founding fathers for incorporating the first amendment into the venerable Bill of Rights, and Johnnie L. Cochran for being a true homie and getting Orenthal Simpson, commonly known as OJ, acquitted.

ps we STILL don’t discriminate against hoodrats, skig skags, or scallywops.

— Justin Park, quoted at GreekChat bulletin board

Just about every year, right around now. I get to hear the same thing again: a bunch of students, most of them white, threw a party involving blackface costumes and other forms of crude racist caricature. It happened at Auburn–at least twice. It happened at Ole Miss. It happened at Syracuse. It happened at Oklahoma State. It happened at Stetson. It doesn’t always happen at a fraternity party, but it often does. Sometimes the kids opt for broad pastiches of gangsta images that they’ve picked up from MTV. Sometimes they opt for explicit references to the history of slavery and militant white supremacy. Sometimes–as it seems happened in Baltimore–they opt for both. The pattern is established, and the reactions are reliable. While University administrators are busy rushing to make a public example of whoever was caught throwing the party, and anxiously insisting (to anybody who cares to listen) that this is an isolated incident, not representative of the campus culture, etc. etc. etc., it’s left to those who know something about what actually goes on on campus (usually Black students or faculty) to point out, yet again, that these things happen in a broader context, that this is nothing new, that things like this happen all the time on campus, and that the only thing special about this case is that the story went public. Then a few months later, everything settles back down, the administration eases or completely reverses its disciplinary actions against the fraternity, and we wait until late next October or early next November, when exactly the same damned thing happens at yet another Halloween party somewhere else.

Just this last weekend I was driving to work, just south of the University of Michigan campus, looking at the party-goers wandering to campus Halloween parties in their costumes. And I drove through the streets wondering whether I’d be seeing the Klan robes, the nooses, the blacked-up white boys dressed as slaves, or the thug poses and afro wigs and the insufferable grins. And wondering, if I didn’t see it, whether it was going on somewhere else, out of my sight, where it would hit the papers in a few days. I was worrying about all these things when I should have been enjoying the simple, silly joy of people dressing up for the night because every fucking year I can fully expect to hear another story about another racist party, just about now. Over and over again.

Thanks a lot, guys. You have officially ruined Halloween.

Yet another isolated incident: blackface in Ohio pee wee football

(Story thanks to Rachel S. @ Alas, a blog (2006-10-26).)

Say, did you ever wonder where all these white college kids come from who are so wilfully stupid, or so openly malicious, that they think that minstrel-show blackface is a great party gag?

The answer is they come from white suburban families who are so wilfully stupid, or so openly malicious, that they think that minstrel-show blackface is an appropriate way to root for their kids’ pee-wee football team and rib the (mostly black) opposing team.

Here’s the story from WKYC Cleveland:

HUDSON — A pee-wee football game between Hudson and Shaker Heights turned into a lesson on racism.

Shaker parents say that Hudson fans, took their team spirit too far. They say those fans became offensive, even racist, because they wore black face and afro wigs.

The parents also claim the Hudson fans beat on frying pans on the sidelines.

Some of the kids on the Shaker team even say they used racial slurs.

It was supposed to be about fun building skills and teamwork. To the seven eight and nine year olds on the Shaker team, the game ended up being about our country’s racist past.

They were calling us ns — the n word, is what one nine year old said.

They shouldn’t say that to other people because they don’t know what it means to us, another player said.

The racial slur was enough to bother these kids but it wasn’t all they faced on the field. There were Hudson fans dressed in black face.

— WKYC (2006-10-25): Pee Wee football game marred by alleged racism

Alleged racism? Whoa, look out there, some fire-eating demagogue has gone so far as to allege that ordinary white people with Midwestern accents and middle-class incomes might be doing something racist when they put on blackface and shout nigger at grade-school black children. Quick, activate the White Denial!

But many parents of the Hudson players told Channel 3’s Mike O’Mara that there was absolutely no intent for any of their fans to be offensive.

Kelly Dine is a parent of a Hudson player.

It was two little boys, not the entire fans, that happened to wear part of the Halloween costume, Dine said. They thought they were supporting their brother on the team.

— WKYC (2006-10-26): More controversy over alleged racism at pee-wee football game; Hudson mayor apologizes

Oh, O.K. I mean, this doesn’t explain away everything. But hey, you’ve got to admit that if it was part of a Halloween costume, then minstrel-show blackface is totally appropriate. Right?

And besides which, we can hardly expect children to have parents, who might have explained to them that racist caricature might not go over so well with a mostly-black football team or their families.

Clearly there is no racism involved here. Didn’t they get rid of that in the sixties, anyway?

O.K., so this isn’t working so well. Better try the Insincere White Apology instead:

Meanwhile, in downtown Hudson, residents are deeply upset about the perception of insensitivity. The banners in the business district proclaim a history of excellence.

… Dine said that she feels very badly if the Shaker parents felt like they were offended.

If two little boys had these wigs on and they perceived that somehow it was an insult against them, it wasn’t. It was truly to support our 8, 9 and 10 year old boys.

— WKYC (2006-10-26): More controversy over alleged racism at pee-wee football game; Hudson mayor apologizes

Oh, man, that I’m sorry you’re offended apology just never gets old. Here’s more from the Cleveland Plain Dealer (via Alas, a blog (2006-10-26)):

[Coach Jeffrey Saffold] said after Sunday’s game, he complained to John Elffers, president of the Hudson Hawks Youth Football Association, who sent him a letter apologizing for the fans’ actions.

Elffers, however, said the first complaint he heard came Monday when Saffold called him and said parents of Shaker players were offended. Elffers said he doubted supporters meant to be offensive.

Their actions, albeit unwise, foolish and insensitive, were meant to be totally supportive and not intended to insult or offend anyone in any way, Elffers wrote in his letter to Saffold. We regret what occurred and apologize for any righteous indignation these actions may have caused to the coaches, players, parents and family members of the Shaker football organization.

Just out of curiosity, if the blackface and afro wigs weren’t intended to insult or offend anyone in any way, what exactly were they intended to do?

O.K., so maybe that one didn’t work out so well either. Better fire up the White Dissociation, quick:

Liz Murphy has owned the bookstore in downtown Hudson for 23 years.

I want to tell them that we’re not like that, Murphy said. I was horrified.

— WKYC (2006-10-26): More controversy over alleged racism at pee-wee football game; Hudson mayor apologizes

I’m sure that Liz Murphy doesn’t personally feel like that. You might wonder, in light of what just happened, what could entitle her to invoke the royal we, here. But I’ll bet the people who are like that don’t have anything to do with all the good white folk of Hudson. They probably don’t even come from Hudson. I hear they fell into the football game through a wormhole that leads back to their Evil Racist Dimension, where everyone wears a mullet, where everyone speaks in funny accents, and where this sort of things is enjoyed or at least quietly tolerated. Certainly this has nothing to do with the sort of community that the white majority in Hudson, Ohio has built, or the assumptions they share, or the customs they indulge in, or the habits of thought they have fallen into. Nothing to see here, citizen; move along.

The mayor of Hudson, William Currin, said personally I am appalled and saddened by the reported acts. I don’t condone nor will I tolerate such actions. I will be investigating this incident and working with all interested parties to try to prevent this sort of thing from ever happening again. Please know that this is an isolated incident and in NO WAY represents the vast majority of the upstanding citizens of Hudson.

— WKYC (2006-10-26): More controversy over alleged racism at pee-wee football game; Hudson mayor apologizes

Sure it’s an isolated incident. Just like all the others.

Further reading:

Yet another isolated incident: blackface at Stetson University

(I found out about this from Pam Spaulding at Pandagon [2005-11-27].)

Campus life in America

photo: two white members of the women's softball team, in blackface, posing for the camera with gold teeth flashing and hands making gang signs

Stetson University, Halloween 2005

photo: frat brothers, one in blackface, pose a mock lynching.

Oklahoma State, September 2002

photo: white frat brothers, one in blackface, pose with the student in blackface kneeling on the floor and a student dressed as a cop pointing a prop gun at his head. Ole Miss, Halloween 2001.

Ole Miss, Halloween 2001.

photo: white Beta Theta Pi frat brothers flash gangsta poses in blackface. Auburn, Halloween 2001

Auburn, Halloween 2001.

photo: white frat brothers, one dressed in Klan robes and one in blackface, stage a mock lynching. Auburn, Halloween 2001.

Auburn, Halloween 2001.

This Halloween, the (mostly white) women’s softball team at Stetson University in Florida decided to live it up by dressing as the (mostly Black) women’s basketball team for an off-campus Halloween party. Some of the nice little details that they decided to add to their costume included: gold teeth, corn rows, thug poses for photos. Oh, and also blackface makeup.

We’re told by a student from the campus who knows them that I do not think the girls were trying to be racist; I honestly believe that they do not understand what they did. That’s probably true. It’s also very sad. Fortunately, though, careless ignorance of recent American history and blackface fun-and-games at college Halloween parties aren’t at all pervasive or common among affluent white college students. This is, of course, just an isolated incident; it’s not like there is any kind of festering racism in the American campus culture at all. Nothing to see here, citizen; move along.

Completely unrelated links

Historical note, free of facile sarcasm

I don’t just say this because I know people in the Auburn fraternity system who are not the sloped-brow, amoral, reactionary meatheads that the Greeks’ history on Auburn’s campus might lead you to believe they would have to be–although this is definitely true; I have friends in the fraternity system who neither have nor want any part of that mindset. I also say it because I really regret that the meatheads that were directly involved will probably never understand just what they did wrong. They will understand that they did some dumb things that got them caught. And they may look back and grumble at the P.C. Thought Police Bastards who ruined their college career. But will they ever understand that there really was a very deep cut of wilful cruelty in what they did? They didn’t put on those costumes in order to be malicious racists (although I believe that there was certainly some overt malice involved). They put them on to have a roguish bit of fun, that old irreverant frat boy panache. Meaningless images of MTV gangstas and some documentary on the Klan they saw in school or on the History channel–trivial, ultimately, like the whole flux of images across our consciousness. Anything can be funny, right? If you don’t really go out and attack Black people, the images don’t mean anything, do they?

But words, images, costumes, historical scripts do mean something; they mean a hell of a lot. The images and rituals, the signs of white supremacist brutality in this country have a meaning, a meaning they are rooted to by centuries of blood and chains. But we live in an age in which the detached image and the spectacle is omnipresent, and yet the prevailing laid-back liberal ideology tells us that we have no reason to care, indeed, that if we do care it’s a sign of pretentiousness, humorlessness, a general need to lighten the hell up. And it’s slowly, surely killing our conscience, eating away at the possibility of being moral agents. Which has what to do with frat boys in Klan robes? I really fear that this soul-killing laid-back liberalism, the impetus behind the costumes in the first place, will also cripple the boys at Beta and Delta Sig from ever understanding what they did wrong, the cutting cruelty that they were willing to ignore in order to have a laugh. Just as much as their hate party outrages me against them, what it means also saddens me for them.

— GT 2001-11-14: One down, one to go…

The worst part about it all are the smiles. The goofy, clueless, happy-go-lucky grins of white college students who don’t understand a goddamned thing about what they’re doing, and just don’t care.

photo: Jolly Nigger Mechanical Bank. A bank shaped like a grotesque caricature of a black man's torso, with huge bright-red lips, bug-eyes, and an outstretched hand

This is a picture of a Jolly Nigger Bank. During the 1880s these were a remarkably popular mechanical bank for children; place a coin on the black man’s hand and he pops it into his mouth as his bug-eyes roll back into his head. the Jolly Nigger Bank was just one of hundreds of popular children’s toys, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, that used grotesque caricatures of Black people, based on the images and conventions of blackface minstrel shows. It’s hard to believe, today, how pervasive these images were: they were everywhere, not just in children’s toys but also staples of the most popular forms of music and theater, film, cartoons, even advertising brands for everything from pancake mix to washing powder. Blackface caricatures surged in popularity in the decades after Reconstruction, and continued well into the 1940s before the rise of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s did it in. Blackface imagery was a pervasive feature of American pop culture for over a century, a feature intimately connected with casual racism, militant white supremacy, lynch law, race riots, and Jim Crow (you may recall that the system of segregation was itself named after America’s first known minstrel show stock character.

Now, there are two different ways that horrible things can end in the wake of coordinated cultural pressure. The privileged can remember them, and take responsibility for them, as hateful reminders of a shameful past. Or the privileged can do their best to pretend that they never existed, avoid mentioning them for fear of giving offense, drop them down the memory hole in the name of propriety, and drive them into the cultural underground rather than addressing them in the daylight.

Affluent whites in America — that same college-educated professional class that we daily hear praising itself and berating the redneck, reactionary white working class — decided to do the latter, not the former, with blackface when Black people made it clear that they weren’t going to stand for it anymore. Down the memory hole they sent it, and they taught that response — by not teaching that history — to their kids. You are seeing the affects of that decision on white college kids’ consciousness with every passing school year.

Here We Go Again – Frat Racism at Syracuse

You know, you’d think that after blackface party costumes at an Auburn fraternity became a scandal in the national newsmedia, frat boys would learn that blackface is not all that good of an idea as a prank costume.

If you did, you thought wrong. In what seems to have been a conscious decision to further shatter my faith in the basic human capacity to learn from past experience, Aaron Levine, a member of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, went on his fraternity bar-hopping party dressed in blackface [Syracuse Daily Orange], in what he claims was a Tiger Woods costume.

After student protests, the case was referred to the Office of Judicial Affairs. Levine faces possible expulsion from the school for violation of the Code of Student Conduct and the fraternity faces possible suspension.

The protesting students also demanded structural changes to school policy to improve the institutional racial environment, including new policies for reporting and punishing similar incidents, diversity training for students and employees, and reinstatement of the Black Student Union Building and Black Panhellenic House.

Meanwhile, Levine has said the following in his defense:

  • The my one black friend thought it was O.K. excuse — According to Levine, he asked a Black fraternity brother (SAE is predominantly white) whether the costume was offensive, and he said it was not. Whenever there’s a scandal over a blackface costume I see this same excuse and I still can’t figure out why anyone even bothers offering it. So your one Black friend thought it was O.K. Fine — but your one Black friend does not think or speak for all Black people in the world. This is mind-numbingly obvious and yet they go on using this excuse as if it meant something. I have to wonder whether it’s really just a way of saying Hey, man, some of my best friends are black rather than actually responding to the person offended.

  • The you’re taking this way too far excuseEverything’s being blown out of proportion, Levine said. It’s hard to please the mob. I’ll talk to any individual. This excuse is useful to Levine — it lets him pretend that he is the martyr of an irrational mob rather than actually personally engaging with the people who are confronting him. Well, look, I understand the feeling that this has gone way further than you ever meant it to go. But that’s the nature of the beast. When you offend someone, you don’t get to choose just how much s/he is supposed to be offended. If you’ve offended someone, your job is to take accountability for what you’ve done, to personally engage with them and understand where they are coming from.

    This seems to come from a general misunderstanding of what it means when a person’s speech or actions are offensive. Now, people can certainly be intentionally offensive–think of the average grade school bully. But most of life is not like this. If it was only what people intended that could be offensive, then a lot fewer people would be offended, because most of the time people don’t intend to piss each other off. But most of the time, what’s offensive has nothing to do with what the person intended; it has to do with what s/he was willing to ignore. In dressing up in blackface for shits and giggles, Levine surely didn’t intend to piss everyone off, but he was ignoring a long and bloody history of brutal racism behind blackface. And that is offensive, not just to people of color, but to anyone with a sense of history and a hope for racial justice. Which brings us to…

  • The I am too stupid to take responsibility for my actions excuseLevine said he had no knowledge of the history of blackface. Well, I guess that’s obvious. But rather than getting defensive and protesting his innocence, Levine ought to take this as an opportunity to educate himself about why the hell people are so pissed off at him. There is a history to these images. They are not just obsolete ephemera flashing across a History Channel documentary. For more on blackface humor and the history of white supremacy behind it, I recommend Bryan Thomas’s column Bamboozled: A True Story [Bryan Thomas. Talk.], and Spike Lee’s spectacular film Bamboozled.

How much longer is it going to take before Universities start getting serious about promoting diversity and undermining institutional racism in their campus culture? We shouldn’t have to wait for scandalous incidents like this one to realize that, in a culture where white privilege deeply shapes the composition and direction of most campus cultures, we need to take some serious steps to open up the University as a space in which students of color can participate. Students of color need spaces such as multicultural center buildings, where they can come together to build their voice and strength for participation in the campus community. Administrators and faculty need to prioritize programs which educate students about the history of race in American culture and politics, and which facilitate greater understanding and openness across racial/ethnic lines. Given the relationship between race and economic class, they also need to talk seriously about making college more affordable and a better experience for low-income students. Administrators need to get serious in holding the organizations and individuals responsible for hate images responsible, but what’s far more important than that is that they also work towards creating and maintaining a campus environment in which people actually understand something about race and white students don’t just think that throwing around casual racism is O.K.

(In related news, Auburn may be faltering or even failing in this regard, despite the bold promises administration made after our own blackface scandal hit the national airwaves. But that is another story entirely; watch this space for the upcoming story on developments in Auburn.)

And for God’s sake, how much longer is it going to take historically white fraternities to realize how much it hurts them, as people and as an organization, to allow this kind of institutionalized racism to fester in their houses? Every few months another incident like this happens. It hits the news, people yell, the frat boys get punished, and then it happens again at another frat house somewhere else in the country. Or it even happens again at another frat house on the same campus, as if no-one in the historically white Greek system had ever figured out that this might just not be cool with other people. I mean, Christ, even amoebas can learn through operant conditioning. Can’t we expect at least that much cognitive functioning from frat boys?

For further reading:

  • GT 11/14/2001 Auburn chapter of Delta Sigma Phi dissolved, and how anti-Southern prejudice undermines the struggle for change in the North and South
  • GT 11/14/2001 Auburn chapter of Beta Theta Pi dissolved, and commentary on the moral crippling of laid-back liberalism
  • GT 11/9/01 the broader context of racism in Auburn
  • GT 11/6/2001, the original report on the Halloween blackface incident