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Hot New Style for Fall: Don Virtual Blackface and Learn About Racism!

10/01/2012 02:24 pm ET | Updated Oct 02, 2012

As the Dean of Students at a school with no Director of Student Activities, I receive a deluge of snail-mail with offerings my tiny programming budget could not begin to afford. My mailbox is the source for about 18 percent of the school's recycling haul, from the flyers for the erotic hypnotist to the pamphlets for the indie-band-with-an-environmental-message, to (my favorite of all time!) a letter asking me to shell out hundreds of dollars to buy the rights to a four-line poem that, if placed correctly on magnets, mugs, and bumper stickers, will most assuredly create a sense of campus community.

Usually I scan the information far less for the content, and far more to marvel at (and generally be bitter about) the seemingly limitless advertising budgets these folks seem to all sport. But one glossy postcard caught my eye last week.

On the front, four young faces on four disembodied heads smiled out at me (well, three women were smiling... the man looked distracted). The text read, "The Only Race is the Human Race." Ok. I can get behind that.

Every year I teach a course entitled "Talking Race in Education" and we spend the bulk of the semester demythologizing race as a biological concept while exploring the raw power race, as a social construct, plays in our daily lives. We're all human is a good place to start, so, good job, glossy advertisement! What would you like to sell me?

I flipped it over to find the trumpeting of The Race Experience, an "exciting, new interactive kiosk that allows us to see ourselves in a different skin...to change our 'race' and become Black, White, Asian, Middle Eastern, Indian and Hispanic."

Holy. Hell.

And it gets worse. Apparently my horror and outrage were not shared at the "over 300 colleges and universities who have used race morphing for Diversity Education and Awareness on campus."

Oh wait. There's more!

The kiosk apparently "challenges us to consider our notions of race, racism and identity." AND, lest you be concerned that you will walk away without a tchotchke, "the morphed results can be emailed."

My hope is that you're outraged. My fear is that you're not. Formers, great! Latters, come with me.

This kiosk appeals to the desperate student affairs practitioner who sees a real need to discuss race on campus but is incapacitated by the daunting prospect of actually making this dialogue happen. Whether this individual works at a diverse school where issues of race are hotly debated or pointedly ignored, or if he works at a predominantly white institution where initiating conversation is Sisyphean at best, this glossy postcard presents a quick fix. Order it ("available for one week, two weeks or a full month!") and you can put a check in the box next to the item of "I tried to get people talking about race."

But here's the thing: this quick fix does the exact opposite of what it purports to do. Instead of exploring the intricacies of power and the very real way the perceptions of race affect our daily lives, this machine tells you, "We're equal because look, white patron! You're black too!" Instead of creating "education and awareness," this carnival photo booth ("a museum quality exhibit!") equates social inequality with a malleable set of features that anyone can exhibit with just the right technology. Instead of creating active listeners, this educational charlatan tells our students that their experiences are all the same because, again, "Look! You look the same as those who claim they are oppressed. Raise up your voice!"

Somewhere, I promise you, a student at one of those 300 colleges had their morphed picture e-mailed to them and put it up on Facebook with the caption of, "I get it now. I understand." And they don't. Not at all. What they get is a culturally insensitive representation for entertainment purposes that completely ignores the history of both blackface and racism.

Please, if you're struggling to initiate a dialogue about race, don't order the quick fix. Instead, walk into your dining hall and ask a group of students, "Do issues of race affect your lives on campus?" Whether the answer is yes or no, you have a conversation started right there. Go with it. All the benefits... none of the tchotchkes.