As my students will tell you, it’s rare for me to be speechless. But when I saw you on campus on Halloween, wearing brown face paint and huge Afro wigs, I was unable to form words. Now that a little time has passed, I’d like to say what I was too shocked to say at the time.
You don’t think you did anything wrong, I’m sure. But what you did was harmful and insensitive, and you need to understand the reasons why.
It may be that you have never studied history, and did not realize that there is a long and shameful tradition of white performers mocking and humiliating African-Americans by wearing black face paint and Afro wigs. This tradition perpetuated the racist stereotypes that still plague us.
Or it’s possible that you saw one of the many people who wear blackface on Halloween—typing “blackface” into Google News will produce an alarming number of examples—and concluded painting yourselves to look like a caricature of a black person was harmless, since other people do it all the time.
Or you may have decided, like the NHL player currently being pilloried in the press for doing the same thing, that it’s OK to paint your face brown if you’re impersonating celebrities whom you claim to admire.
I have no idea what you were thinking, frankly. I cannot imagine how someone would casually decide that it would be fun to wear costumes that make Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben look like beacons of racial harmony.
I might suggest reading some history and literature about African-Americans; UVU offers numerous courses for you to choose from. And if you did so, you might realize that you were invoking a long and ugly tradition of racism, whether you intended to or not.
But it’s quite likely that by now—assuming you haven’t already stopped reading—you have dismissed me as an old fart who just doesn’t get it, who doesn’t have a sense of humor, who takes everything too seriously, blah blah blah. And if that’s the case, there isn’t much I can say that’s going to change your minds. After all, your friends thought your costumes were great. Everybody said so.
But a lot of the people who saw you that day immediately thought “racists.”
If that doesn’t bother you, then there’s really nothing left to say.
English and Literature
Response from Opinions Editor, John-Ross Boyce:
In our Halloween issue, I wrote an article, detailing five reasons why your Halloween costume is awful. I picked some pretty obvious targets, like The Joker, the lingerie-and-animal-ears get up. But there was one costume I didn’t single out however. And I apparently should have.
I didn’t think I’d ever have to write an article reminding people why blackface is wrong.
Even in all my cynicism, I never believed that I would have to address that style of costume. I thought that such blatant racism was a foot-high curb, easily stepped over. I thought that blackface was so obviously wrong I foolishly believed that we would never encounter such a degrading thing as a student dressed in blackface on our campus. This is, after all, an institution of higher learning.
I was unfortunately wrong, and I apologize. Clearly, at least a few students on this campus would have benefited from someone spelling it out for them. Maybe more. I hope not.