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: www.darronsmith.com

“It’s hard to see racism when you’re white”: Un-Fair Campaign

The “Un-Fair Campaign,” a public awareness campaign about racism, is generating some discussion.  In light of the recent video from BYU (see previous post), this campaign makes a lot of sense and is quite timely. The tag line is: “It’s hard to see racism when you’re white.”  The idea behind the campaign: if we recognize racism, we can stop it.

The focus of the campaign is very clearly on white people and this makes sense given the demographics of the region where the campaign is posting billboards.  The Twin Ports (Duluth, MN and Superior, WI) is a predominantly white community (89%).

 

The campaign is the work of several organizations committed to racial justice in the Twin Ports area, and grows out of a recent Knight Foundation report, called  Soul of the Community. In a three-year study detailed in the report, researchers found that people in this region were less likely to say that it’s a good place for racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants, than those in comparable communities elsewhere. Based on these findings, anti-racist activists in the area are trying to change things through the “Un-Fair Campaign.”  Here’s a brief description from the campaign’s website:

People of color experience incidents of racism every day, and they have long asked “when will white people in our community stand up and speak out about racism?”  This campaign is part of a response to that question.  Racial justice will never be achieved until we as white people address white privilege and work to change it.

The insight that “it’s hard to see racism when you’re white,” has been a central message here at this blog for some time, so perhaps not a new or controversial idea for regular readers here.

But the campaign (which just launched January 24) has already generated some heated backlash from whites who are not too keen on the ideas of having their whiteness pointed out to them, much less learning to notice white privilege or acknowledge racism.

The (white) mayor of Duluth has received death threats because of the campaign, and according to one account (h/t Lisa Albrecht, Assoc Prof, U of MN, member of leadership team of SURJ), other activists involved in the campaign are enduring a daily barrage of threatening emails and phone messages suggesting she should leave town, be raped because she ‘hates white people.’  And, of course, the campaign is getting a lot of play on the usual white supremacist sites.

The question the campaign – and the white backlash against – raises a perennial one for those interested in racial justice: how do you get white people to address white privilege and work against it?  The Un-Fair Campaign is an innovative approach to this persistent dilemma. The next challenge will be how to use the backlash to further the cause of racial justice.

White College Students in Dire Need of Education

A white college student at Brigham Young University (BYU) in Utah recently dressed in ‘black face’ and then interviewed some of his classmates about some basic questions, like “when does black history month happen?” (h/t Jenni Mueller).This short clip (4:14) reveals that white college students are in dire need of education:

It’s tempting to suggest that there is something uniquely ignorant about BYU students, but I think that the college students featured here are pretty typical of other college students attending historically white institutions.

Young, Black Men Succeeding in Higher Education: New Research

A new report by University of Pennsylvania’s Dr. Shaun Harper offers new insight into young, black men who are succeeding in higher education. While the overall trends for black men in higher education are not good – low enrollment and high attrition – Harper wanted to understand how those that succeed do so.

Ceiling Porn
Creative Commons License photo credit: somecanuckchick

Harper conducted two- to three-hour individual interviews with most of the 219 students on their respective campuses. The participants were enrolled in 42 colleges and universities in 20 states. The respective schools fall into six categories, including historically Black public institutions, historically Black private institutions and highly selective, private – and historically white – research universities. Harper hoped that his research would provide solutions to raising low Black male college enrollment and completion rates.

What differentiates those that succeed, the study suggests, is a complicated mix of mostly external factors that appeared to give them a sense that college was not only possible but expected, and that engaged them academically. Among the key influences:

  • at least one K-12 teacher who took a personal interest in their academic and personal future;
  • adequate financial support to pay for college;
  • a transition to college in which high expectations were set for them as much if not more by influential black male juniors and seniors at their institutions.

The  impression left by Harper’s study is that it’s often “serendipitous” when young, black men succeed in college – a caring teacher notices them, they get a good financial aid package, there are peers that show them the way.  But, Harper argues that it’s important to focus on the how and why of success, rather than just the litany of dismal studies about academic failure, in order to find a way to help more young, black men get into and finish college. In an interview, Harper said: “I am arguing for a much more intentional institutional strategy. Black male student success ought not to be serendipitous.”

The National Black Male College Achievement Study is the largest-ever empirical study of Black male undergraduates, and you can find the full report here.

Documentary: “Daisy Bates: First Lady of Little Rock”

Independent Lens (PBS) is celebrating Black History Month with a bunch of terrific documentaries, including a wonderful new documentary about Daisy Bates, a complicated, unconventional, and mostly forgotten heroine of the civil rights movement. It was Ms. Bates who led the charge to desegregate the all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957. The film is called “Daisy Bates: First Lady of Little Rock.” Here’s a short clip (1:08):

Watch A Feminist Before the Term Was Invented on PBS. See more from Independent Lens.

There’s also an interview with the filmmaker, Sharon La Cruise, available here. The film is airing this month on PBS stations across the U.S., so as they say, check your local listings and set the DVR!

Documentaries: “Banished”

During Black History Month, I’m sharing some relevant documentaries. One of my favorite is, “Banished: How Whites Drove Blacks Out of Town in America.” (Independent Lens, PBS, 2007). The film examines the history of racial cleansing in America, in which at least 12 different counties in eight states “banished” their black populations through the threat of violence. Here’s a short clip (1:27):

As a companion to this film, I’d recommend James Loewen’s Sundown Towns, about the widespread phenomenon of places where African Americans were not welcome at after dark, often noted by a sign that read, “Don’t let the sun go down on you in this town.” While most people associate this sort of exclusion with the Jim Crow South, Loewen demonstrates that in Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, Pennsylvania, and other places north of the Mason-Dixon Line, sundown towns were created by waves of white-led violence in the early decades of the twentieth century. As with the film, the book shows how the predominantly white cities, towns and suburbs of today are rooted in historical violence and ongoing discrimination.

The film is available through California Newsreel.

Masterful, Witty, Illuminating Letter: Former Slave to His “Old Master”

A recently resurfaced letter, dated 1865, from a former slave to his master is getting some well-deserved online news and social media attention.

According to Letters of Note, the letter comes from a formerly enslaved man by the name of Jourdan Anderson. In the missive, Jourdan appears to be responding to a petition made by his former master, Colonel P.H. Anderson, requesting that Jourdan and his family return to Tennessee to work as freed laborers on the same land on which Colonel Anderson had enslaved them for 30 years.

Trymaine Lee of the Huffington Post summarized the letter perfectly:

In a tone that could be described either as ‘impressively measured’ or ‘the deadest of deadpan comedy,’ the former slave, in the most genteel manner, basically tells the old slave master to kiss his rear end.

Jourdan’s letter brilliantly reveals the numerous injustices suffered by enslaved people at the hands of their white masters, as he compares the ways their lives had improved since their emancipation and migration to Ohio. In one exquisitely subtle example, Jourdan addresses the daily disrespect no doubt endured by his wife while enslaved by Anderson, writing “folks here call her Mrs. Anderson.” Similarly, he challenges the absurd promises made by Colonel Anderson to try to entice the family back with sarcastic genius, simultaneously revealing the tragic circumstances of their lives while living as the colonel’s “property.”

The horrors of the family’s enslavement notwithstanding, the letter is worth reading for its comedic richness alone.

(Indeed, how tragic there was no YouTube video in 1865, to capture the expression on Colonel Anderson’s face as he read the sharp-as-a-tack dismissal from his former slave – our full imaginations will have to suffice as we picture the colonel reading Jourdan’s calculations of past-due wages owed his family, along with directions as to how they should be sent!).

Beyond any amusement, however, Jourdan’s letter should put to rest narratives, old and new, of the so-called “happy slave,” showcasing the masterful insights that black Americans of the time had regarding the circumstances of their oppression by whites. Indeed, not only could black Americans like Mr. Anderson well-analyze such matters; as argued by Joe Feagin and others, these Americans of color also held a much more sincere and unsullied sense of justice than most white Americans have, in practice, ever embraced.

Documentaries to Celebrate Black History Month: Brick City

To celebrate Black History Month, I’ll be sharing a few documentaries throughout the month that have a particular focus on African American culture told through non-fiction film.

I’ll begin with one of my favorite films in the last few years is Brick City (2009), which aired as a documentary series on the Sundance Channel.  The filmmakers Mark Benjamin and Mark Levin do a remarkable job of capturing the daily drama of Newark, New Jersey, a community striving to become a better, safer, stronger place to live.

Against great odds, Newark’s citizens and its Mayor, Cory Booker, fight to raise the city out of a half century of violence, poverty and corruption. Booker, an outspoken and charismatic mayor who many compare to Barack Obama, works with Police Director Garry McCarthy, youth mentors, Blood and Crip gang members and other citizens on the front line to bring peace and prosperity to their once-proud city.  Here’s a short clip:

Available through multiple outlets, including First Run Features (distributor) for purchase.