THE BLOG

Institutional Blackface

11/20/2012 02:40 pm ET | Updated Jan 20, 2013
  • James Peterson Director of Africana Studies and Associate Professor of English at Lehigh University

For those that do not know, I am a proud graduate of Duke University (Class of '93). As a black alumnus of one of the greatest universities in the world with a troublesome history with race and racism, I am often treated to the highs and lows of the Duke experience. Last week was no different as members of the Duke University Black Alumni Committee reached out to me to begin the process of organizing an event featuring myself, Grant Hill, Nia-Malika Henderson and others to commemorate the 50-year celebration of the presence of black students at Duke -- yes, it's only been 50 years. Duke beat Kentucky -- i.e. Duke men's basketball beat the University of Kentucky -- and this is always good. But in addition to these great moments -- moments that make me proud to be a Duke grad, we were once again treated to the insensitive (and now common) practice of white undergraduates who "dress up" as black characters and blacken up their faces in order to do so. Sigh.

Halloween is a holiday that I generally dread anyway since wearing a (figurative) mask for me and for many of my ancestors was a necessary strategy deployed regularly and specifically for the sake of subverting white supremacy. But because I am a professor, former grad student, etc., the Halloween holiday also means that I have been perennially treated to seriously demeaning tricks. 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.

For the few of you out there who do not know the history of blackface minstrelsy please allow me to provide you with an ever-so-brief primer. In the 19th century, white performers blackened their faces and aped the most stereotypical, dehumanizing, and demeaning "characteristics" of black people. This practice became one of America's first popular forms of entertainment. Its pervasiveness contributed to the American narratives of race that considered black people to be less than human, "other" and utterly unworthy of citizenship, much less equality. Eventually black entertainers blackened their own faces and exploited America's appetite for the destruction of black humanity. This not-too-distant history is a painful reminder -- I guess only to black people -- of the awful history of racism in America. That it can be so cavalierly and regularly referenced with no sense of this history or with feigned ignorance of said history is even more troubling than the wearing of blackface in the first place.

But this incident stings a bit more, not just because it's my alma mater, but because of the fact that a head coach of a Division I sports team was not aware that a student athlete engaging in this kind of act might not be a good look for the team, the program, or the university; that a web administrator could/would post this on the Duke Athletics Department website without any thought or consideration of how it might offend Duke alum, current Duke students and faculty is also absolutely striking. I despise these kinds of analogies, but imagine the Duke Athletic Department posting a picture of a student athlete dressed as a Nazi soldier. Yes, the cavalier wearing of blackface offends me that much. It harkens back to a history in this country where everything from entertainment to labor, from religion, to education, everything, was systemically designed to destroy the humanity of people who look just like me -- people from whom I am descended.

I could rail on, but instead I would like to make an announcement. I am hereby formally offering my services as an advisor, professor, and/or consultant [PRO BONO] to any institution with which I have ever been affiliated for me to come in during any first-year orientation, diversity "training" or other opportunity, to address this issue specifically and to place in its full context the wearing of blackface on college campuses. For some time now, I have been less and less offended by the students who actually do this, and more and more amazed that some of our greatest educational institutions are incapable of appreciating how painful and embarrassing this pervasive practice has become.