When Sorry Isn't Enough: Blackface and the Duke Problem

What happened at Duke University is not simply the failure of individuals who put their own pleasure and fun ahead of justice, the humanity of others, and a culture of respect, but a failure of the university and the culture at large
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This past month students at Duke University attended a Halloween party at the home of Duke lacrosse coach, Kerstin Kimel. At this party for the Women's Lacrosse team, a group decided to come as Our Gang/The Little Rascals, which, not surprisingly, included Buckwheat. With one player donning blackface, this became the latest incident at a university demonstrating the intransigent nature of white privilege and racism.

The decision to follow in the footsteps of American popular culture and their collegiate brethren is not surprising given the ubiquity of racism within contemporary parties. Dr. James Braxton Peterson describes the broader issues at work here:

White students put on blackface at Halloween, take pictures and generally circulate and celebrate their 'costumes.' I think of this as the "southern strategy" of the Halloween holiday. Young white folks, usually male, are able to express their racial and racist angst (conscious and subconscious) in a space and at a time that for the most part sanctions backwards, demeaning behavior. This has happened at every institution of higher learning at which I have ever worked or learned. It is strategic because the blackfacers almost never face the facts of our dark American history and almost always claim ignorance in the aftermath of outrage and the pain communicated (perennially) by the black university communities that must bare witness to these regular insults.

Although ignorance is not excuse for the student (or those other students who sat idly by), what can we say about the adults who allowed for the costume to be worn, who watched as pictures were snapped to memorialize the event, who put them on the Duke website and who left them there for multiple days. Multiple days! Yes, I said that correctly: officials at the university saw fit to put an image of the student in blackface on its website. There are many questions that deserve to be asked of the students; there are also questions that need to be answered about why a coach is hosting a party at her home. The ubiquity of blackface and parties based on degradation also deserves attention in that they have become so common that one needs to simply write a generic article, filling in the specifics of each incident. Yet, the failures of Duke University, from coaches to see a problem in blackface, on its website is telling. The failure of members of the Athletic Department/Media Relations to see an image of its student-athlete in blackface should give pause. The recent "apology" is equally troubling, pointing a systemic failure.

Responding to the outrage about a blackface costume and its appearance on a Duke website, Coach Kimel offered the following faux apology that seems to have been purchased from nonapologies.com:

This year, some of our costume choices were insensitive and entirely inappropriate. No offense was intended, but that does not matter because we should have realized how these choices would be viewed by those outside of our program. On behalf of our coaching staff and our student-athletes, we apologize to anyone we may have offended and understand while we believed we were making decisions in good fun, we should have been much more sensitive to the implications of our actions.

Yes, this was "insensitive" and "inappropriate"; that should be the starting point of an apology, one that also acknowledges the pain, violence, and hurt resulting from this "party." Do you always have parties that dehumanize and mock, or just on special occasions? The focus on "intent" and the reaction of others demonstrates the power and persistence of privilege. The cross-generational white allegiance to blackface is illustrative of a sense of power and superiority. Amid claims of lost power and the changing demographics, it is the living example of the sedimented realities of white privileges. It becomes a moment to tell the world, particularly communities of color, "Hey we can still mock you; we can still become you; we can still degrade you; we can still control you."

If I accidentally stepped on your foot, or knocked you over, is it fair for me to say, "I didn't mean to knock you over; no offense was intended and I didn't realize it would hurt if I stomped your toe. I didn't realize you were so sensitive about your toe being squished." That is what the above "apology" does, ostensibly telling those outraged by blackface, by university officials allowing blackface to take place at a party, by university officials thinking it was a good idea to put blackface images on its official website, "our bad, we are sorry you are oversensitive."

The actions and the fraudulent apology leave me wondering, are you apologizing for what you did or for getting caught? Rather than apologizing for actions, it is about the reaction; rather than highlighting steps that will be taken to address the behavior of university officials (coaches; publicity department) and the players themselves, the "faux apology" was imagined as a sufficient step. Not even close.

While the incident at Duke is yet another example of Blackface 2.0, the specific inclusion of the Our Gang characters also deserves pause. In Our Gang, "the black characters were often buffoons in racially stereotypical ways. They spoke in dialect -- dis, dat, I is, you is, and we is. Farina, arguably the most famous pickaninny of the 1920s, was, on more than one occasion, shown savagely eating watermelon or chicken," notes The Jim Crow Museum. "He was also terrified of ghosts -- this fear was a persistent theme for adult coons in later comedy films. Farina and Buckwheat wore tightly twisted 'picaninny pigtails' and old patched gingham clothes which made their sex ambiguous." In other words, the costume embodies multiple traditions of American racism: Blackface and the dehumanizing and stereotypical representations of the American media.

The ability to be ignorant, to be unaware of the history and consequences of racial bigotry, to simply do as one pleases, is a quintessential element of privilege. The ability to disparage, to demonize, to ridicule, and to engage in racially hurtful practices from the comfort of one's segregated neighborhoods and racially homogeneous schools reflects both privilege and power. The ability to blame others for being oversensitive, for playing the race card, or for making much ado about nothing are privileges codified structurally and culturally.

What happened at Duke University is not simply the failure of individuals who put their own pleasure and fun ahead of justice, the humanity of others, and a culture of respect, but a failure of the university and the culture at large. It embodies a retreat from equity, with our focus being on surfaced diversity and inclusion. In a academic space where tolerance, diversity, multiculturalism, and inclusion are thrown around with ease without any attention to equity and equality, does it surprise anyone that these incidents continue to happen over and over again? "Diversity is about variety, getting bodies with different genders and colors into the room," notes Rinku Sen in "The Difference Between Equity and Binders Full of Anybody." "Equity is about how those bodies get in the door and what they are able to do in their posts." With colleges and universities focusing more and more on promoting diversity and tolerance (message: "whites should tolerate students of color by not donning blackface because they might be sensitive"), the consequences are clear. The costumes, the cultural appropriation, and the blackface are part of the white binder, used and deployed when desired. These binders are also full of non-apologies that seek to preserve the status quo, not promote equity. If universities, and in this case Duke University, want to transform themselves, they will need to focus on self, promoting equity and a culture where students, faculty, and university officials would never see blackface and all forms of racial mockery as fun or OK. Now that would be some kind of apology.

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