Majoring in Minstrelsy: White Students, Blackface and the Failure of Mainstream Multiculturalism

[This by Tim Wise piece was originally published, June 22, 2007 at Lip Magazine.]

Sometimes you just have to ask, “What is wrong with you?”

I’ve been asking this question a lot lately, given the almost monthly reports that white college students at one or another campus have yet again displayed a form of racist ignorance so stupefying as to boggle the imagination.

For some, it means dressing up in blackface. For others, a good time means throwing a “ghetto party,” in which they don gold chains, afro wigs, and strut around with 40 ounce bottles of malt liquor, mocking low-income black folks. For still others, hoping to spread around the insults a bit, fun is spelled, “Tacos and Tequila,” during which bashes students dress up as maids, landscapers, or pregnant teenagers so as to make fun of Latino/as.

The 2006-2007 school year saw at least fifteen such events transpire, bringing to well over thirty the number of such incidents in recent years. Among the institutions where white kids apparently think this kind of thing is funny, we have the University of Texas School of Law, Trinity College, Whitman College, Washington University, the University of Virginia, Clemson, Willamette College, Texas A&M, The University of Connecticut School of Law, Stetson University, the University of Chicago, Cornell, Swarthmore, Emory, MIT, Macalester, Johns Hopkins, Dartmouth, the University of Louisville, the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater, William Jewell College, Oklahoma State, Auburn, the University of California at Irvine, Syracuse, Tarleton State, Union College and the Universities of Colorado, Tennessee, Arizona, Alabama, Illinois, Delaware, and Mississippi.

Whether racist parties like this are growing more common, or whether they’re just gaining more attention thanks to websites like Facebook, MySpace, and others that allow the sharing of photo files is unclear. But in either case, the question remains: Why do so many whites engage in these kinds of activities, without giving their appropriateness a second thought?

There are generally two theories postulated to answer this question. The first holds that these students are ignorant about the history of blackface, and the racist implications of mocking the so-called ghetto. The second suggests that the whites involved are anything but ignorant. According to the latter theory, the students know exactly what they’re doing, and are deliberately trying to make a statement, as a form of backlash against students of color on their campuses.

While it may be tempting to accept one or another of these explanations, both might contain a partial truth. For some–like those who have thrown these parties on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday (as happened a half-dozen times this past year)–it is hard to believe that they were unaware of the racial message they were sending. On the other hand, persons dressing in blackface as part of a Halloween costume, while offensive, may well be acting from sheer stupidity, absent malicious intent.*

The truth is probably somewhere between the two theories. It’s certainly true that most whites are unaware of the way that blackface has been used historically to denigrate the intellect and humanity of blacks. And most probably know little about the history of how ghetto communities were created by government and economic elites, to the detriment of those who live there. Yet, at some level, most of those engaged in these activities had to know they were treading on offensive ground. After all, never did the sponsors of these parties make the mistake of inviting real black people to the ghetto celebration. They knew better, apparently, than to approach their campus’s Black Student Associations and ask them to co-sponsor the events. They didn’t ask Latino students to come to “Tacos and Tequila,” so as to lend authenticity to the fun. Had they been acting out of pure ignorance, they wouldn’t have hesitated to try and make the events into multicultural funfests. But they never made this mistake, suggesting that even if only subconsciously, they had to know something was wrong.

There are several potential causes of racist theme parties. Among the more obvious would be the insular nature of the Greek system, from which a disproportionate number of these events have emanated. After all, fraternities and sororities mostly choose members based on how much alike they are to those already in the club. They are not, in other words, natural incubators for diversity. Nor are they the kinds of places where dissent typically flourishes. So if one’s brothers or sisters were planning a racist party, even those who were bothered by it might not speak up, for fear of being ostracized. But as easy as it might be to beat up on the Greeks, there are much larger institutional issues involved. Not to mention, there has also been a massive failure of white students, including those not involved in fraternities or sororities, to take a stand against these kinds of events.

Watered-Down Multiculturalism as a Cause of White Racist Behavior

For the past two decades, most colleges have engaged in various types of diversity efforts, from affirmative action policies, to the creation of multicultural affairs offices, to diversity-related programming. Yet the way in which diversity and multiculturalism have typically been approached on campus, leads one to wonder whether or not the messages being sent might actually contribute to the kinds of racism on display in events like ghetto parties or blackface incidents. Sadly, diversity on campus is still most often approached as it was at my college, Tulane University, in the 1980s, with little having changed since then. Namely, in most instances, schools push the “celebrate differences” paradigm of diversity, in which everyone is encouraged to be tolerant and to appreciate the cultural contributions of all the different racial and ethnic groups. While this may sound good, in practice it creates problems.

First, “tolerance” can be used as a weapon to insist that we should be tolerant of racist humor too. As such, emphasizing toleration rather than equity of treatment may contribute to a climate where students feel comfortable throwing these kinds of parties, because after all, “it’s just a joke.” Secondly, by implying that race issues are about culture (and not power differences between whites and folks of color), most diversity efforts allow whites to think of blackness as little more than style, which can be appropriated, copied or mimicked, without making fun of black people per se, or furthering inequity. In this kind of multiculturalism, the power dynamic that makes racially insensitive humor hurtful isn’t discussed. Students are encouraged to see how “We’re all different” (and gee, isn’t that interesting?), but are not asked to reflect on the biggest difference of all: in this case, the one regarding who’s on top and who’s not in the larger society.

Even worse, to copy what they see as black culture and style, is just as likely to be seen by such persons as celebratory and positive, as negative and demeaning. In other words, it’s as if they were saying, “Hey, we’re just celebrating difference! Look at me, I’m a rapper!” Now sure, they may have a horribly stunted view of what constitutes both celebration and true cultural difference (seeing as how they clearly equate blackness with the gangsta image), but their assumptions in this regard make sense, stemming from a context-absent analysis, in which issues of power are largely missing.

Additionally, by avoiding issues of power, mainstream multiculturalism makes it possible for whites who see no harm in blackface or ghetto parties, to respond to their critics by saying things like, “Well, what about that movie ‘White Chicks,’ where the Wayans brothers put on white face makeup and made fun of people like us?” In other words, whites see all groups as equally capable of objectifying each other, so what’s the big deal? Indeed, if you’re being taught to view issues of race as the mere pluralistic existence of different groups, perhaps competing for resources and attention, but without a discussion of power, this kind of argument has a certain kind of logic to it. Of course, once the social context is brought in, it makes no sense at all. There has been no history of whiteface as a mechanism for denigrating the intelligence of whites, whereas blackface served precisely that purpose. “White Chicks” conjures up no painful memories, and is so devoid of the historical ‘umph’ of blackface, that to consider it in the same category as minstrelsy is to call into question one’s ability to think rationally at all.

What’s more, because mainstream multiculturalism rarely explores the historical or sociological roots of what some now think of as cultural phenomena, it is also possible for whites to view “the ghetto” as an authentic expression of black culture, rather than understanding it as a geopolitical space occupied by persons whose opportunities have been constricted. To most whites, ghettos are culturally-specific spaces, either to be feared, turned into style, or even romanticized as more “real” than the places from which most of them come. If they had an understanding of how the ghetto became the ghetto–a history of residential segregation, urban “renewal,” which destroyed black homes and neighborhoods, and deindustrialization, beginning in the ’60s–many of the whites who have participated in these kinds of activities might have thought twice about it. If they understood that the ghetto is something that has been done to millions of black people–that indeed it is more an expression of white supremacist culture than anything authentically black–many might recognize that throwing parties celebrating or mocking ghetto life would be hardly different from throwing concentration camp or internment camp parties. But if whites think of the ghetto as an authentic expression of blackness, they’ll be less likely to feel shame while making fun of such a place. Indeed, they may not even view a ghetto party as making fun at all, so much as being a romanticization of a place that both fascinates and terrifies them.

So long as diversity talk avoids issues of power and privilege, opting instead for cultural tourism, whereby we’re encouraged to sample one another’s stuff, from food, to clothing, to hairstyles–note the phenomena of white boys wearing dreadlocks, and white girls with tight braids–we can expect this kind of thing to continue. After all, what could be more “touristy” than dressing like the people whose culture you’re sampling? To many whites, blackface, or putting on an Afro and fake bling, is just a more up-to-date and hipper version of the Hawaiian shirt their dad wears every time the family goes to Honolulu.

Until colleges include discussions of power, inequality and privilege (and how these can misshape the campus climate) during first-year orientation programs, and with all students, they really can’t feign shock or outrage when some proceed to act out their ignorance on a public stage. Until schools clearly define what a racially hostile environment is, and what is to be viewed as contributing to such a climate–and what kinds of acts will therefore not be tolerated, just as they would not be in the workplace–they can’t be surprised when students feel they can get away with virtually anything, no matter how offensive. Finally, so long as colleges turn a blind eye to the overwhelmingly white student pathology of epidemic binge drinking that has served as the backdrop for most if not all of these racist parties–indeed, white students are 130 percent more likely to binge drink than blacks, and 300 percent more likely to do so on a regular basis–not much is going to change. This means attacking problem drinking as an abuse of privilege, and not just alcohol.

White Protectionism and the Need for Ally Behavior

In addition to the need for school officials to take action, students must also take responsibility for addressing these occurrences head-on. In particular, whites who are not involved in these acts need to stand up against those who are. Although some whites have joined with students of color to condemn these events when they’ve happened, quite telling has been the speed with which others have sought to downplay the racism evinced in such instances.

At Oklahoma State, one young man minimized the seriousness of the incident in his fraternity–in which one of his “brothers,” wearing a Klan hood, posed for a picture while holding a rope around the neck of another member who was dressed in blackface–by noting that the perpetrators were just “young men, having fun, no one was hurt, and above all nothing was meant by their actions.” At Stetson, a group of young women who dressed in blackface, claimed that their event had the blessing of the mostly black basketball team; and at Illinois, white sorority girls defended their “Tacos and Tequila” event by noting that their two Latina members were “cool with it” (as if a handful of black and brown folks can speak for their entire groups). The attorney for a group of white frat boys at Auburn even suggested that his clients had actually been trying to be “inclusive” by dressing in blackface, since the party theme was to come dressed as something you might see in the Auburn community.

Or consider the internet posting of a University of Texas law student, who didn’t participate in last year’s “ghetto fabulous” party, but who found more fault with those critiquing it, than those who threw it in the first place:

“Get over it. You were offended. You complained…Prolonging the drama only makes you look like attention whores — you aren’t trying to educate people, and you aren’t trying to create an atmosphere of inclusion, where people can understand your point of view. You want to continue to spank the naughty 1Ls. The Dean gave you recognition. Everyone in the law school received that email. Do you honestly think that prolonging the drama is going to do anything productive? And for the record, equating ghetto fabulous with blackface is really fucking stupid.”

In other words, the students who engaged in the racist objectification of blacks are “naughty,” but the students of color who complained are “attention whores,” and “f–ing stupid.”

Other whites at the law school voiced their displeasure at the possibility that the school may now alter its curricula, thereby forcing them to learn about racism–imagine having to learn about such an irrelevant subject while studying law. Still others criticized the black students for going public about the event (instead of handling things internally), since it might harm the careers of whites who didn’t participate, but who would now be tainted by the actions of a few. Instead of being upset at their white peers for throwing the racist party, and thereby tainting them as whites, their anger was focused on the black students for discussing it openly!

And in keeping with the tendency for white folks to seek out black scapegoats whenever one of ours engages in racism (as happened with Don Imus), many students have sought to shift the blame for things like ghetto parties onto hip-hop and rap music. In other words, white kids are just copying what they see on MTV, and if black folks can glamorize the ghetto, why can’t they? That rappers, for good or ill, are often telling stories about their own lives and communities from which they come (or at least with which they have some familiarity), while white co-eds are engaging in vulgar voyeurism devoid of authenticity escapes them. Not to mention, rap can hardly be blamed for the ignorance here: after all, black students, who last time I checked often liked hip-hop too, don’t throw these parties. Not ever.

Then there’s the tendency to redefine racist incidents as something else, like simple bad taste, or even political satire. The latter of these was offered as the excuse last year, after one Willamette student came to a party in blackface to mock the school’s President, and another (albeit a student of South Asian descent, but by most accounts highly white-identified) dressed as an indigenous woman who had been raped. Funny stuff.

Until white students become less concerned about hurting the feelings of a bunch of racists, or drunks (or both) by calling them out, and more committed to the creation of a respectful and equitable environment on campus, those whites who engage in acts of racism will feel no need to change their behaviors. Unless whites ostracize such students, those who find racism humorous will continue to push the envelope. Only by making clear that these kinds of things are unacceptable to us, will other whites apparently get the message that their actions are inexcusable. It’s obvious by now that they won’t respond to black and brown protests alone.

Perhaps we should think of it as an updated version of the white man’s (and woman’s) burden: not, as with the original and racist version, to “civilize” others, but instead to civilize ourselves, to grow up, and to enter into the world of adults as more functional human beings, rather than as the walking, talking stereotypes into which we too often turn ourselves.

* Putting aside whether or not blackface incidents or ghetto parties are intentionally racist (as opposed to being mostly the result of ignorance), there is little question but that overt racism poses a serious problem on college campuses. Data going back to the 80s suggests that there are thousands of instances of ethnoviolence (ranging from assaults, to graffiti, to racial slurs) directed towards students of color each year. A study at the University of California-San Diego in the 90s found that over eighty percent of white students admitted to having seen or heard racial slurs or acts of race-based discrimination aimed at students of color. And a 2004 survey at the University of Virginia found that forty percent of all black students at the school had been the target of a direct racial slur, while ninety-one percent had either experienced or witnessed an act of racial discrimination or intolerance since coming to the college. Additional research by Joe Feagin and Leslie Picca, published in their recent book, Two-Faced Racism, finds that white students often use racial slurs and express blatantly racist beliefs around their white friends and colleagues, even though they would rarely if ever do so publicly, or in front of the persons to whom the slurs are directed.