BYU Black Face and the Meaning of Race in America

It has been nearly a year since Brigham Young University was heralding as “America’s University” for its unapologetic devotion to the honor code when it suspended Brandon Davies, an African American basketball player, on the eve of the 2011 NCAA Basketball tournament. Davies reportedly confessed to having premarital sex with his girlfriend, which is prohibited by the honor code office. The controversy arose when the numbers broke of purportedly much higher rates of black student athletes suspended compared to white student athletes. It appears they are at it again; the institution and the students at BYU, the flagship school of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints, are highlighted in a new and provocative video on YouTube that attempts to show how little white students actually know about Black History month.

Fountain in Front of Administration Building at BYU in Provo
Creative Commons License photo credit: benmckune


This previously posted video underscores a major concern in the profound lack of understanding about race in America. It appears as though many of the students that comedian David Ackerman interviews know very little about the significance of the month of February, and furthermore, very little about the black experience in general.

References in Ackerman’s video by the students regarding black Americans having an affinity for fried chicken or Jay-Z as an acceptable way to celebrate Black history month is a symptom of something more sinister. These notions are deep-seated stereotypes about the black experience, controlling metaphors regarding the nature and character of people of African descent. People have died over these words in our nation’s past, and the re-enforcement in a highly racialized society like ours today allows these images and words to continue to wound the soul. The evidence is everywhere-just look at any major social indicator from health care to education and analyze how mobile Black Americans have been in 50 plus years after the civil rights movement. The vast majority of Black Americans aren’t doing so hot, despite the “success” of a few.

The “humor” in the video demonstrates, perhaps, the profound ignorance of the students not knowing how racist they’re actually being. However, I cannot help but find it disheartening that Americans still struggle with the vestiges of race, racism and discrimination even amongst our most promising: young folk who weren’t even around during the horrors of the civil rights movement, and students at a major university in America where you would imagine they are being challenged to think critically about human differences.

I presume the young people interviewed in the clip are very nice people, and they likely have no idea the harm they’re doing and just how offensive and embarrassing their remarks are to themselves, BYU and the LDS faith. Yet, their comments in the video demonstrate how enduring racism is from generation to generation.

What is equally disturbing is Ackerman’s use of the black face character. Although he is tempting to show just how little interaction whites on this campus have with blacks by failing to even recognize that he himself is not black, he does so by bringing in the sordid history of the black face. Mr. Ackerman is attempting to raise the level of consciousness about race to unsuspecting BYU students. However, I am not sure if he understands and is sensitive of the highly offensive history of black face, otherwise known as minsterely.


Minstrel shows are pure Americana, a racialized form of entertainment consisting of comic spoofs performed by white people in black face make-up, especially popular after the Civil War. White actors would use minstrel shows to satirize black Americans and grossly distort the black image as particularly, lazy, shiftless, uncouth and overly sexed, for example, and these caricatures were extraordinarily popular. Minstrel shows were a controlling discourse, a way to dehumanize (or make less human) black Americans in order to justify brutal white racial oppression.

Since then, racist ideas about black Americans have withstood the test of time, evolving into what we now know and recognize as modern forms of racial stereotyping that take on a life of there own such as the famous notion that intimates black Americans prefer welfare compared to white Americans as highlighted in recent GOP utterances by Rick Santorum that he does not “want to make black people lives better by giving them somebody else’s money.”  In his attempt to bring about a socially conscious video, Ackerman in turn undermines his very goal by the lack of awareness in the use of the black face. Ackerman’s video, although well-intentioned, stifles its own progress because he is not well-versed on the history of racism in America.

In fact, I can’t help but wonder just how many white students recognized him as a white man dressing in black face and found it funny as an acceptable form of comedy.

Outsiders often look at the Mormon faith as a faith drowning in racial demagogy. For example, presidential hopeful Mitt Romney’s recent gaffe that he isn’t “concerned about the very poor” since he feels we “have a safety net there”. Of course, his alma mater is none other than BYU, the site of this video. But the reality is these statements made by members of the LDS church are reflective of it being a predominately white faith rather than its Mormon beliefs.

We must recognize that this could easily be any major university in the U.S., as the majority of them are predominately white institutions. Equally important to the low representation on campus is the lack of education on our history and the people of this nation. Just how do we expect to educate our youth when the majority of these schools a have a weak or absent commitment to ethnic studies programs? This video demonstrates how persistent racism is and how it continues throughout each generation of White Americans. How can we combat these stereotypes and negative images when they are being handed to the next (previously innocent) generation, and all the while, continuing to create self-doubt amongst people of color?

~ Darron T. Smith is assistant professor at Wichita State University and co-author White Parents, Black Children Experiencing Transracial Adoption and Black and Mormon. Contact:


  1. Blaque Swan

    I give Ackerman points for trying. What initially bothered me about the blackface was that it would have to be self-evident that Ackerman himself has some sort of “acting black” stereotype in mind. Then I was disturbed that only a couple of people in his interviews recognized he was in blackface – he says this at the end of the video. Now, you remind me of the history of minstrelsy and again, we just see how little Ackerman knows.

    Which is awfully sad, right? He clearly knows more than the people he’s interviewing, right? And still, he has a ways to go. Though, if he’s open to continuing to learn and grow, if he can acknowledge his own shortcomings, I think he’ll be a great ally in the cause.

    It was also said that not even that one black guy that was interviewed knew much about his own history. But I think people need to grapple with the fact that we’re all subject to the same social and institutional structures. Being black may increase the likelihood that you’re enlightened, but as was demonstrated, that’s no guarantee. This is also goes for white people who have friends or significant others of color. Virginia Thomas married a black man. How racially sensitive are either one of them?

    Come to think about it, no one presumes that just because a man has a wife means he’s not sexist. Why are things so much more complicated when it comes to race?

    But I digress.

    Lastly, here’s something I just have to know: do white people not like friend chicken? Or Jay-Z? Do people not think about what they’re saying? As though rap and KFC have each made billions on the back of a community that is disproportionately poor.

  2. cordoba blue

    I just watched the above video by a black man commenting on how isolated whites are in Utah. Very informative. Need to watch it people!
    Anyway, yes Utah is definitely White Country. Residents see and interact with very few blacks, as manaen pointed out. Thus, their knowledge of black people is based on media exposure. That’s why it’s somewhat of a misnomer to call them racists, it’s more about living on that “other planet” named Utah. Utah was a perfect choice if you wanted to choose a place where white Americans have extremely little knowledge of other ethnic American groups. And a liberal arts program SHOULD address this,agreed.
    Also, manean said there was a small population of Pacific Islanders in Utah, for example, and they pretty much keep to themselves. So, if you are anything other than White in Utah, you won’t be readily accepted in the mix I guess.
    In North Carolina, where I live in a large city, there is a great deal of diversity. Hispanics, African Americans, Asians, people from India, Russians, you name it. The school system has actually expanded their English as a Second Language program to accomodate all the different ethnic groups flooding the state.
    The point is racial diversity encourages tolerance and ease with different races and cultures. Stuck up in the mountains in Utah, these kids on the video are basically clueless.

Leave a Reply