Blackface Halloween costumes trigger campus discussion on race


James Schwendener/THE CAMPUS

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Professors confuse Cureema Uzzell, ’12, with other African American students in her class. This has happened more than once.

“I’m an individual and there’s usually only one or two African Americans in your class anyway so just kinda get it right,” Uzzell said. “Don’t hand me back their papers.”

The Association for the Advancement of Black Culture sponsored a “Blackface Assembly” in the Campus Center on Tuesday for students, like Uzzell, to share their thoughts and experiences with race on campus.  ABC set up the forum as a response to students dressing up in blackface (specifically Kid Cudi and Lil Wayne) and stereotypically “racist” Mexican costumes over the Halloween weekend.

At the forum, ABC Vice President Brittany Johnson, ’12, explained the history surrounding blackface and presented a YouTube video called “1950 Blackface Performance Vernon & Ryan,” which featured actors in blackface.

Members of ABC and the audience passed around a microphone and talked about racism on campus.

“I’m a ballroom TA,” said Carlos Lopez, ’11. “One of the comments I get every day is ‘Oh, I’m too white to move my hips.’ Also, in choreography for Orchesis, ‘I’m sorry I’m too white to do your dance.’ What does that even mean? What is ‘too white?’ Like I can only move because I’m black? Are you characterizing my whole culture by this one artistic expression?”

Eunice Kessie, ‘12, is from Ghana.

“This whole thing [affects] me because I’m African and I know my history and I know what my ancestors tried to do and what happened to them when they came here,” Kessie said. “Me being here in this country – this is my first time that I actually learned about racism because being in Ghana, I didn’t know what being black was. Words like ‘negro’ and ‘nigger’ – they  did not exist to us until I came here. To me personally, it’s very, very hurtful to have people of my color…being looked upon as not even being human.”

The faculty also joined the discussion. Assistant Professor of Communication Arts River Branch praised the student speakers and encouraged people to attend upcoming listening sessions for the Campus Climate Report to put recommendations to action.

“I really respect everyone who has spoken here,” Branch said. “Many people here have been quite eloquent and quite powerful with what they’ve shared.”

Students and professors suggested solutions. ABC Treasurer Clay Grego, ’13, voiced his desire for social justice and diversity training for faculty, administration and for both incoming and current students.

“I think that the administration needs to take a very large hand in what should happen next,” Grego said. “I would say students have the power to prompt the administration to take the next steps. I think that there should be social justice training for matriculating freshmen as part of orientation.”

Assistant Professor of English Aisha Lockridge shared her thoughts about accountability.

“Almost every year that I’ve been here, in fact I think every year that I’ve been here, there has been a racist incident on campus,” Lockridge said. “Once these students are found out, what happens to them? And what it seems to be right now is nothing. This will continue to happen until there are consequences.”

At the assembly, Grego also brought up the need for black Greek organizations on campus.

“I know a lot of members of ABC that are trying to bring Greek life that is black to our campus have done a lot of their homework on the issue and so we ask the administration do theirs as well so we can work together and make this happen,” Grego said.

Assistant Director of Student Involvement Kate Gullatta said she would welcome conversations to discuss the addition of another Greek organization, but she has not been approached about one in the last year and a half.

“We have had a National Pan-Hellenic Council fraternity on campus before; it was a number of years ago,” Gullatta said. “It was Phi Beta Sigma, but they left due to low membership.”

Several administrators attended the assembly, including President James Mullen, Dean of Students Joe DiChristina, Director of Residence Life Kazi Joshua, Director of Admissions Jennifer Winge, Director of Diversity Affairs Cherjanet Lenzy and many more administrators from the ACCEL office and Admissions Office.

“I was proud to be a part of the experience and I am eager to continue the discussion at the executive level,” Winge said.

ABC President JeVon Hatcher, ’11, still harbored concerns about the effectiveness of the assembly when the majority of the attendees have a stake in the issues already.

“My concern is that we’re preaching to the choir,” Hatcher said.

Dylan McCreary, ’13, attended the forum and described the experience as an “eye-opener.”

“I had never realized it was that huge a thing on campus,” McCreary said. “Like hearing stories of students being degraded, people saying that one girl wasn’t smart enough for physics because she was black. I don’t know. It was never an issue where I grew up.”

As for the students who wore the Halloween costumes in blackface, their identities will remain anonymous. One of the students was well aware his costume was offensive, Grego said.

“He was…ducking away from any black people he saw,” Grego said. “So that to me, his trying not to be seen or avoiding people, marks his being ashamed.”

Grego had lunch with the other student to discuss the problem with her costume.
“I’m not sorry for their feeling guilty or bad because I feel like that’s where the learning takes place,” Grego said. “That’s where you mark where in time you start to make progress.”

At the end of the assembly, Johnson reminded the audience members they could still buy a button with the word “Blackface” crossed out for 50 cents.  President Mullen was the first to stride up to the table with his wallet open.

(Additional reporting contributed by Dan Bauer)