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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:

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.

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