By now we all know the story. An Arkansas Tech student dressed up as Lil Wayne and painted her face black (or tan, whatever) to compete in Sigma Pi’s Greek Costume Showcase.
The picture that went viral and elicited media attention from across the country shows students laughing at and applauding the sorority girl’s idiotic idea of a costume.
President Dr. Robin Bowen released a statement saying the university will “investigate this matter through the proper channels to ensure that appropriate corrective measures are taken.”
Sigma Pi President Blake Bratcher refused to comment. Associate Dean for Campus Life Kevin Solomon echoed Bowen’s statement about investigating the matter before any rash comments are made.
Whether or not Tech will take any disciplinary action—aside from the desultory apology we’re sure to be receiving in the coming days—is yet to be seen.
But honestly, punishing the girl won’t change anything about how we perceive race in this country, and more specifically this racially charged area.
The responses from both sides of the issue show how divisive our area is concerning race and how racial actions are to be received by the general public. Middle ground was immediately stomped out.
Reactionaries from the “it’s not racist” camp pleaded she was just dressing up for fun and the hoopla over race is unwarranted. These are the same people that would say there’s not a race problem in this country, which is undoubtedly wrong.
The other side, however, is just as wrong to assume the girl deserves to be pilloried as a racist. No doubt she made a stupid choice, but not everyone is attuned to the cultural sensitivities that for good reasons are required these days.
So she wore the costume for one of two reasons: She either had malicious intent and wanted to offend blacks, or she is so oblivious to the current racial climate that she genuinely thought it was OK to darken her skin to look blacker as a part of her costume.
Obviously she had no intentions of hurting people; she wanted to look more like the rapper. But her ignorance hardly lightens the burden blacks carry in this country.
And this ignorance, this blatant unscrupulousness, speaks to the larger problem concerning white culture’s arbitrary appropriation of black culture.
Whiteness is, in the U.S., the cultural default. Blackface is a convenient, and formerly safe, way of exploiting the “other” we subconsciously group black culture into, allowing us to dabble on the forbidden side. It’s an odd form of social fetishism that we’re, hopefully, bringing awareness to.
The ill-founded notion that such an act is tolerable and all in good fun—since proven terribly false by the storm of backlash against the student—stems from our nation’s warped history of African American servitude and the false precepts that arose thereby.
Slave masters, with clear consciences, believed they bettered the lives of those they oppressed. In the 19th century, blackface minstrel shows and theatrical performances featuring white actors portraying ebullient and simple blacks rose to prominence and became a public pastime.
After slavery ended, this boiled down caricature of black people persisted throughout Reconstruction and up until the Civil Rights Movement as white culture’s means of exploring the outré without feeling as if any harm was being done.
The animate effigy was content with oppression, thus blacks must have been too, so the thinking went.
Of course, none of this was going through the student’s head when she made her costume. Why would it? She wasn’t trying to be a racist, she just made a decision that inflamed racial tensions, which were born out of and still grow based on these false perceptions.
But the antiquated idea that blackface isn’t harmful is a void sentiment. Look at the irreparable pain we’ve inflicted on blacks throughout our history. The seeds of hate are still being sowed today in the form of police brutality, systemic opportunity inequality in education and an unjust legal framework.
Even if an individual personally sees nothing wrong with a white person painting her face black for a Halloween costume, that individual should make a more educated decision if only out of respect for those who are offended by it.
This begins with thinking about the way in which others perceive a social issue like race and its functions in society. Genuinely trying to put yourself in another’s shoes takes care of a large amount of racial ignorance on one side, and reacting in the way you think you should on the other, both of which only impede human growth.
We construct race based on our social setting. We’ve used it to justify, condemn and entertain. Yet, the only actual race, anthropologically, is the human race. Race has no grounding in biology, where we’re all essentially the same.
Still, as long as injustices exist—and they do and will exist—sensitivity has to become a more natural part of the human ethos. Ignorance and small-mindedness populate the side of the insensitive, and these are the antithesis of what an institution of higher learning should stand for.