Party Like It’s 1899: Arizona Football and Blackface Fans
by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan
To celebrate their new football uniforms, Arizona State University officials encouraged students to come to their Friday game against University of Missouri wearing all black. Four students decided to use this moment as an opportunity to party like it was 1899 by donning blackface. The media reaction, thus far, has been muted, not surprising given the persistent intrusion of minstrelsy into contemporary popular culture and the overall dismissal of most behavior from white college students as harmless revelry. Yet, this instance point to several larger issues at work.
The practice of white students donning blackface is not an isolated incident but reflects a larger trend within America’s college’s and universities. While usually taking place at parties, outside the view of the public at large, the minstrel tradition is alive and well. Tim Wise, in “Majoring in Minstrelsy: White Students, Blackface and the Failure of Mainstream Multiculturalism,” notes that during the 2006-2007 school year there were 15 publicly known instances of racial mockery. He describes this practice in the following way:
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.
At the core of any of these instances is a sense of power and a perceived right to mock and degrade irrespective of its impact; it may also potential reflect ignorance about the larger history and meaning of blackface. In either instance, we see white privilege in action. “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,” writes Tim Wise. “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.”
Whereas in the more commonplace practice of “ghetto parties” or other racial mocking parties the ignorance argument makes less sense given the efforts gone to limit outside exposure, it is easy to see how a lack of knowledge about the meaning and history of blackface might have led these students to attend nationally-televised football game in blackface. Ignorance, however, is no excuse.
The ability to be ignorant, to be unaware of the history and consequences of a person’s action, to simply do as one pleases is a quintessential element of privilege. It reflects a level of power to be either unaware or unconcerned with the potential offense; the ability to ignore and dismiss history is a privilege, one that the state of Arizona promotes through its very policies. “One thing we know about racism is that much of it is learned. We also know that young people must also learn racial sensitivity. In both cases, Arizona State University appears to have failed the test,” writes Boyce Watkins. “Students are a reflection of those who teach them, and it’s interesting that these four white women made the plan to wear black face, went out and bought the makeup, told their friends about their plan, put on the makeup and went to the game, without anyone even taking a second to realize that what they were doing would be incredibly offensive to millions of people.” Watkins’ assessment seems particularly important given we are not talking about Arizona, the epicenter of the anti-ethnic studies movement.
In 2010, on the heals of its decision to institutionalize racial profiling, the legislature followed-up with its ban on ethnic studies classes “designed primarily for students of particular ethnic groups, advocate ethnic solidarity or promote resentment of a race or a class of people.” It is hard not to make a connection here, as well as the larger history of Arizona and race.
Whether arguing that blackface at ASU football game reflects ignorance about the larger history of racism and the potential offense many might take from the sight of 4 white college students reenacting a racist tradition of minstrelsy; or that their decision is a conscious push-back against what they perceive as political correctness run amuck, the larger context is crucial. Ignorance of this larger history or disregard for its meaning is “Decrying the ghetto party as ‘modern-day minstrelsy’ is surely an expression of righteous indignation, but it is only the beginning of the story rather than the end,” noted Jared Sexton in a 2007 piece that I co-wrote for Colorlines. “The persistent challenge is to understand why the perverse pleasure of cross-racial caricature and its disavowed currents of mockery, ridicule, envy and hatred are so powerfully attractive to its participants—participants who, as a rule, rely on the dynamics of racial segregation that have produced the ghetto for the very form and substance of the most public and the most intimate aspects of their social lives.”
In other words, the sight of these four students in blackface is a reminder of the consequences of persistent racial segregation, the cost of a hegemonic multiculturalism that avoids issues of inequality and racism, the manifestation of white privilege, and most importantly, in the context of Arizona, evidence of the importance of ethnic studies as a curricular intervention. It demonstrates the necessity of ethnic studies because those are spaces where the history of and meaning within the tradition of minstrelsy is learned. That is the opportunity to rectify that ignorance or unlearn the acceptance of these practices.