In light of the recent incident where a former member of Sigma Tau Gamma wore black paint on his face as part of his Halloween costume, it is important that people understand why dressing up as another race or minority group can be offensive.
It is also important to bear in mind that dressing up as a person or character who has a race different from your own does not necessarily have to involve blackface or be offensive. A white person can dress up as a black celebrity. That itself is not a problem. If that same person paints his face black as part of the costume, that changes the circumstances.
Blackface is racist. It is part of a long history of white people disenfranchising and belittling people of color. Ignorance of that history is not a sufficient excuse for such actions. Racism is still racism, even if someone doesn’t think of himself as a racist.
Blackface isn’t just offensive because of the fact of a white person painting his face black. It’s offensive because of the history involved, because of the repeated disenfranchisement that it symbolizes.
“The history of blackface is complex, but it’s inescapably rooted in the notion that black folks are inherently less than white people, and that they shouldn’t be allowed to portray themselves onstage,” according to an article from the Huffington Post. “While you may think it’s harmless to paint yourself black for Halloween, it’s not. This is the tradition you’re joining, whether or not you know it.”
Intention is not the only thing that matters when it comes to racist actions. Good intentions don’t excuse bad behavior. You don’t have to identify as a racist to do or say racist things; not every racist is a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
Racism isn’t just burning crosses. It’s treating people as less than you because of the color of their skin. And that includes racially motivated insults as well as exploiting black people for Halloween costumes.
The issue of racism at UCA does not end with a single member of Sigma Tau Gamma. It includes the two young men who stood next to him in that photo, smiling with drinks in their hands. It includes every person at that party who didn’t speak up, everyone who saw his face and didn’t say, “Hey, that’s a bad idea. And also racist.”
The national chapter of Sigma Tau Gamma did condemn the costume. The fraternity brother in question did apologize, which some would say counts for something.
Thankfully, the university plans to investigate. UCA prides itself on its diversity. What this student did was not a representation of UCA’s values.
According to uca.edu, “UCA is dedicated to attracting and supporting a diverse student, faculty and staff population and enhanced multicultural learning opportunities. We value the opportunity to work, learn and develop in a community that embraces the diversity of individuals and ideas, including race, ethnicity, religion, spiritual beliefs, national origin, age, gender, marital status, socioeconomic background, sexual orientation, physical ability, political affiliation and intellectual perspective.”
At least he does seem to realize now that he did something wrong. The fraternity brother in question shouldn’t have chosen to wear blackface in that costume, but he also shouldn’t be receiving death threats.
The student made a mistake, but he didn’t commit a crime. He and his family should not have to worry about his personal safety. While outrage about this situation is understandable, responding with violence and threats is unacceptable.
The best thing to do in this type of situation is to inform and educate the public. We can’t just be upset and tell someone he did something wrong. We have to tell him why.
Racist actions have been around for centuries in America, but it is 2016 — it’s time to stop. It’s offensive and insensitive.