Blackface incident

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Syracuse University just sent me an email about sorority member breaking into a rival sorority house to steal stuff in response to the other sorority's having stolen stuff from her house. As a good burglar wanting to avoid being seen, she had black face paint on. She's being investigated by the Team Against Bias for a bias-related incident, and they're calling it a blackface incident (the third in a few years).

Here are their definitions:

(1) Blackface: The earliest accounts of Blackface took place in minstrel shows in the early 1800's in the markets and other public areas in New York City. Blackface performances displayed African-Americans as slow, simple-minded, and grateful for the care of their intelligent, superior slave owners. The goofy and comical nature of the shows was a mask for the more serious slashing and stereotyping occurring beneath the surface. Early historians claimed that Blackface performances were about "happy Negroes" telling about how easily they found amusement and contentedness and their "simple southern ways." (Lhamon, 1998).

(2) Bias-Related Incident: Behavior that is motivated by bias and constitutes an expression of hostility against the person or property of another because of the targeted person's race, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, national origin,
gender, age, or disability. Bias-related incidents can constitute a hate crime when the behavior also includes criminal activity such as physical assaults, vandalism, destruction of property and threats to harm.

(3) Team Against Bias (TAB): This University staff, faculty and student group advocates for a campus community where differences are celebrated and respected through education, identifying and addressing instances of prejudice and bias, and empowering students to be positive agents of change for social justice. The TAB provides support to affected individuals and communities during and following a bias-related incident.

I have composed the following email in response:

Classifying Saturday night's incident as bias-related is at best misguided. How can someone's wearing black face paint to engage in a burglary attempt be equated with someone impersonating a black person? Burglars wear black face paint so as not to be seen. It has nothing to do with race and stands in a long tradition of burglars wearing black face paint in ways that have nothing to do with race. I'm sure it dates back to long before the minstrel shows and bears little resemblance to those.

My wife is black, and her response was "Oh, good grief! These people have blackface on the brain."

This is even less justified than thinking that someone dressing up as Tiger Woods had anything to do with minstrel shows or that it reflected bias in any way (which was refuted by the fact that the young man's black fraternity brothers encouraged it and even may have come up with the idea).

I'm well aware of the complicated issues of race-related negative effects caused by actions that weren't intended to cause harm. Well-meaning people can do things that cause harm, and we should resist much of that. In some cases, though, I think it's a huge overreaction to expect people always to know which things will lead to the slightest offense. In these cases, the effect is merely unfortunate. I think your focus is in the wrong place if your main efforts are aimed at enforcing some rigid code so as never to allow anyone to cause offense unintentionally. Positive solutions to race problems will allow for people to make mistakes and learn from them, sometimes with disciplinary action even, but it's impossible to expect someone to know everything that might cause the slightest offense.

I can't believe that anyone alive today (and thus with no memory of minstrel shows) is old enough to experience much more than slight annoyance at something that merely happens to resemble minstrel shows but is completely unrelated. It reminds me of the case of someone using the word 'niggardly', which has absolutely no relation to any racial slur etymologically or in the usage of any dialect today. It's purely about Scrooge-like behavior. Yet someone had to leave his job working for the District of Columbia for using that word correctly. People have complained that Arnold Schwarzeneggar's name is offensive to black people. Where does it end? Something can't always be wrong simply because someone is offended by it. Sometimes the offending person is the problem, but I don't think that's always the case.

If ROTC students go around campus with camouflage paint, will they be investigated for a bias-related incident? This doesn't seem to me to be much different. I don't see how this could be classified, by your own definitions, as motivated by bias or as an expression of hostility to anyone other than the sorority being broken into. I ask that you take this into account when evaluating this case.

Jeremy Pierce
Ph.D. student and instructor
Department of Philosophy

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5 Comments

I just did a quick google, and got 18 hits on - commando "burnt cork" - because I've been aware since before I entered college that those who carry out covert operations, including warriors as well as criminals, at night need to blacken anything which might be visible.

I hate it when people do stupid stuff like this. And I'm not talking about the girl trying to break into another sorority. Stupid things like this wear people down to the point where when there is a legitimate incident of racial bias they have already had enough of the false alarms. When you cry wolf too many times no one will listen when the real wolf finally does come calling.

A very reasoned response. Unfortunately there is no reasoning with the Committee of Public Safety. They are determined to take offence for any meber of a "mnority" that they can, as it their way of exercising power. Left wing economics was bunk, radical environmentalism has proved to be a wash-out. So all the bossy, bureaucratic, fonctionnaire typse can do now is push the Race issue to its absolute limit.
My mother, a very wise upper class type of Australian, has always said that those who take offence are usually the true offenders.
All anti-discrimination legislation and all quangos charged with overseeing our thoughts should be abolished root and branch. Then we all get along with each other much better.

I think it's a little more complicated than that, but I do agree that this offense at stuff that's on the fringes of offense is itself at least bordering on being offensive.

I don't think this has anything to do with anti-discrimination, which I see no problem with in principle. I doubt abolishing it would help us get along much better. The real problems with race aren't going to be solved by external actions, whether those actions are to promote equality of opportunity and/or outcome (as the left and much of the right will want to do) or to prevent it (as your policy would in effect do). This is not to say that the real problems of race won't be helped by external actions. Sometimes that probably will happen.

One of my students turns out to be in the fraternity involved in this event, and he said there was a meeting last night to decide how to classify it. The email sent out to the entire university community saying that it was being classified as a bias-related incident was premature, and a number of university officials were very angry at the faculty member who sent the email out. Also, this confirms that the initial report was wrong, and it was between a fraternity and a sorority, not between two sororities. The person who got caught dressed as a burglar was male.

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