When Sorry Isn’t Enough: Blackface and the Duke Problem

When Sorry Isn’t Enough: Blackface and the Duke Problem

Dr. David J. Leonard

This past month students at Duke University attended a Halloween party at the home of Duke lacrosse coach, Kerstin Kimel. At this party for the Women’s Lacrosse team, a group decided to come as Our Gang/The Little Rascals, which, not surprisingly, included Buckwheat. With one player donning blackface, this became the latest incident at a university demonstrating the intransigent nature of white privilege and racism.

The decision to follow in the footsteps of American popular culture and their collegiate brethren is not surprising given the ubiquity of racism within contemporary parties. Dr. James Braxton Peterson describes the broader issues at work here:

White students put on blackface at Halloween, take pictures and generally circulate and celebrate their ‘costumes.’ I think of this as the “southern strategy” of the Halloween holiday. Young white folks, usually male, are able to express their racial and racist angst (conscious and subconscious) in a space and at a time that for the most part sanctions backwards, demeaning behavior. This has happened at every institution of higher learning at which I have ever worked or learned. It is strategic because the blackfacers almost never face the facts of our dark American history and almost always claim ignorance in the aftermath of outrage and the pain communicated (perennially) by the black university communities that must bare witness to these regular insults.

Although ignorance is not excuse for the student (or those other students who sat idly by), what can we say about the adults who allowed for the costume to be worn, who watched as pictures were snapped to memorialize the event, who put them on the Duke website and who left them there for multiple days. Multiple days! Yes, I said that correctly: officials at the university saw fit to put an image of the student in blackface on its website. There are many questions that deserve to be asked of the students; there are also questions that need to be answered about why a coach is hosting a party at her home. The ubiquity of blackface and parties based on degradation also deserves attention in that they have become so common that one needs to simply write a generic article, filling in the specifics of each incident. Yet, the failures of Duke University, from coaches to see a problem in blackface, on its website is telling. The failure of members of the Athletic Department/Media Relations to see an image of its student-athlete in blackface should give pause. The recent “apology” is equally troubling, pointing a systemic failure.

Responding to the outrage about a blackface costume and its appearance on a Duke website, Coach Kimel offered the following faux apology that seems to have been purchased from nonapologies.com:

This year, some of our costume choices were insensitive and entirely inappropriate. No offense was intended, but that does not matter because we should have realized how these choices would be viewed by those outside of our program. On behalf of our coaching staff and our student-athletes, we apologize to anyone we may have offended and understand while we believed we were making decisions in good fun, we should have been much more sensitive to the implications of our actions.

Yes, this was “insensitive” and “inappropriate”; that should be the starting point of an apology, one that also acknowledges the pain, violence, and hurt resulting from this “party.” Do you always have parties that dehumanize and mock, or just on special occasions? The focus on “intent” and the reaction of others demonstrates the power and persistence of privilege. The cross-generational white allegiance to blackface is illustrative of a sense of power and superiority. Amid claims of lost power and the changing demographics, it is the living example of the sedimented realities of white privileges. It becomes a moment to tell the world, particularly communities of color, “Hey we can still mock you; we can still become you; we can still degrade you; we can still control you.”

If I accidentally stepped on your foot, or knocked you over, is it fair for me to say, “I didn’t mean to knock you over; no offense was intended and I didn’t realize it would hurt if I stomped your toe. I didn’t realize you were so sensitive about your toe being squished.” That is what the above “apology” does, ostensibly telling those outraged by blackface, by university officials allowing blackface to take place at a party, by university officials thinking it was a good idea to put blackface images on its official website, “our bad, we are sorry you are oversensitive.”

The actions and the fraudulent apology leave me wondering, are you apologizing for what you did or for getting caught? Rather than apologizing for actions, it is about the reaction; rather than highlighting steps that will be taken to address the behavior of university officials (coaches; publicity department) and the players themselves, the “faux apology” was imagined as a sufficient step. Not even close.

While the incident at Duke is yet another example of Blackface 2.0, the specific inclusion of the Our Gang characters also deserves pause. In Our Gang, “the black characters were often buffoons in racially stereotypical ways. They spoke in dialect — dis, dat, I is, you is, and we is. Farina, arguably the most famous pickaninny of the 1920s, was, on more than one occasion, shown savagely eating watermelon or chicken,” notes The Jim Crow Museum. “He was also terrified of ghosts — this fear was a persistent theme for adult coons in later comedy films. Farina and Buckwheat wore tightly twisted ‘picaninny pigtails’ and old patched gingham clothes which made their sex ambiguous.” In other words, the costume embodies multiple traditions of American racism: Blackface and the dehumanizing and stereotypical representations of the American media.

Continue reading @ Dr. David J. Leonard: When Sorry Isn’t Enough: Blackface and the Duke Problem.

NewBlackMan: ‘Affirmative Action,’ ‘Black’ GPAs and the Discourse(s) of Black Intellectual Inferiority

‘Affirmative Action,’ ‘Black’ GPAs and the Discourse(s) of Black Intellectual Inferiority

by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan

The racial culture wars (i.e. the demonization of black students) are once again raging on college campuses. A recent study authored by Peter Arcidiacono, Ken Spenner, and Esteban M. Aucejo concludes that African American students are less qualified and academically prepared to succeed at Duke University. “What Happens After Enrollment? An Analysis of the Time Path of Racial Differences in GPA and Major Choice” cites evidence of African Americans switching from science (STEM) majors to easier liberal arts majors as evidence for a lack of preparation.

According to a group of Duke Alumni, “The study opens with a bold statement that affirmative action admissions in higher education allow for the college admission of minority students who have ‘weak’ preparation for college-level work. This implies that students of color are not as intelligent or prepared as their white counterparts.” The study is thus not simply an assault on affirmative action and the struggle for diversity on college campuses, but an effort to reassert notions of white superiority. “What many people of color discovered upon entering those previously closed corridors was not white superiority but, for the most part, white mediocrity. Now, to preserve such a system, what is often brought up is the mediocrity of blacks and other groups of color who enter,” writes Lewis Gordon. “What is not brought up, however, is the group of blacks and brown people who were excluded on the basis of their excellence. The prevailing view in predominantly white institutions about such candidates is fear of whether such candidates are ‘controllable.’” Leaving readers with the conclusion that blacks are not controllable (and thus not desirable), the study has dangerous implications.

In relying on and working from a series of stereotypes and accepted narratives, the study fails to answer a number of questions that points to both its deficiencies and its danger:

How does the study define blackness; does it differentiate between first generation African immigrants or students whose family have been in the United States? Does it account for class differences? In talking about SAT courses, and preparation, how does it account for educational inequalities, such as differential resources, access to SAT preparation courses, and the availability of advanced placement courses and countless other examples that point to the ways in which racism produce an uneven playing field?

How does the study account for extracurricular activities, demands of work, student involvement, and engagement with the community? Are there differences between different disciplines? How does it account for the ways that the demands of life, and the potential involvement of students as organizers, community leaders, athletes, artists, and active citizens differs between the sciences and the liberal arts, and the potential impact on grades? How does it explain high rate of entry for black students in STEM majors and how does it account for high exit rates?

In failing to actually talk with students and learn from their experiences, in an effort to understand how the institutions and higher education is potentially failing, the authors instead explain once again put the onus back on black students. Offering a narrative that focuses on “qualifications,” “work ethic,” educational unpreparedness, the authors not only deploy a dominant white racial frame that consistently images whites as superior and deserving, and blacks as inferior and therefore undeserving, but erases the meaningful ways that racism and white privilege operate in contemporary society

The study works from a premise that sciences are harder, demand more study time, and are more demanding; the evidence provided for each of these claims is lower grades amongst students despite greater academic preparation. The authors argue at great lengths – “and perhaps related to the differences in grading practices, students are working harder in natural science and economics classes and perceive these classes to be more challenging than classes in the humanities and social sciences”—that African American students are fleeing from harder classes and majors because they cannot handle them. Without any evidence, such claims should give pause on a number of levels. The assumptions here are extensive as the authors provide little evidence that these classes are harder or more demanding; the authors merely recycle the assumptions that Schwarz Reflection Principle and Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle are far more challenging to students than understanding the use of metaphors by Shakespeare and Ellison, analyzing Ferdinand de Saussure’s idea of signifier and signified within The Matrix, or applying the theories of Karl Marx, Max Weber and Walter Rodney to globalization.

Continue reading @ NewBlackMan: ‘Affirmative Action,’ ‘Black’ GPAs and the Discourse(s) of Black Intellectual Inferiority.