Saturday, November 14, 2009

Blackface continued...

- photo from Novembers French Vogue

"We're sure they thought it was a good idea at the time.

But intent was not the issue at hand as the University of Toronto Black Students' Association hosted a town hall meeting on Tuesday, in response to the Halloween party hosted by three student unions on October 29 that saw a group of students—four students in blackface and one in whiteface—dressed up as the 1988 Jamaican bobsled team depicted in Cool Runnings. After one event organizer subsequently deemed the group as having one of the "costumes of the night" in a message sent to more than three thousand invitees on their Facebook page, Torontoist wrote about the costumes, and the fire spread from there.

The town hall meeting was part lecture, part discussion, as professors Melanie Newton, Arnold Itwaru, Cynthia Wesley, and Sean Hawkins joined speakers Rinaldo Walcott and Alissa Trotz, and over five hundred attendees at the Claude T. Bissell Building, for a discussion on racism and the history of blackface.

"This is a teachable moment," explained Alissa Trotz, encouraging students to continue the dialogue beyond the assembly on Tuesday night. "Are we going to commit to do the ongoing work that is necessary [to combat racism]?"

Trotz and her colleagues took the opportunity afforded by the town hall to educate the passion-filled, curious, and fervent students who clearly wanted a venue to have their voices heard. After a two-hour litany of speeches, student union representatives delivered their statements, expressing regret that the incident caused hurt.

"I believe it’s very important to shed a light to the history of blackface [and] I personally myself learnt so much from the speakers tonight," said Francesca Imbrogno, President of the St. Michael's College Student Union. "Many of us were unaware of what blackface was and it really was a shame that it took a couple of Halloween costumes to bring this issue to more people’s attention. We are eager to learn more about the history of this issue, and very apologetic that people were offended."

Deryn Robson, the student commissioner who awarded the prize (and who previously apologized in the comments section of our earlier post), also made a statement: "I was not sensitive of the offense that these pictures could have caused…I take full responsibility for the [Facebook] message....I can only be extremely apologetic and reassure that this sort of thing will never happen again."

While the speakers gave a full-throated explanation on why blackface of any type is unacceptable, it was clear during the subsequent open mic session that some students weren't buying it. One woman wondered why it was okay to depict nuns during Halloween, even though it was offensive to her as a white, Italian, Roman-Catholic woman. Someone suggested that she start her own forum as well.

In fact, doesn't the wonderful, post-racial, pat-ourselves-on-the-back-that-Barack-Obama-made-it-to-the-White-House-world we live in mean that we should be beyond this? If blackface is not acceptable, then why is dressing in drag? Where is the line drawn? Is Halloween forever doomed because of political correctness?

The group of students who had dressed up as the bobsled team explained:

"First and foremost we would like to apologize if anyone was offended…Throughout our childhood, Cool Runnings was something we reflected on with fond memories and therefore in the process [of] choosing Halloween costumes, seemed to be a promising candidate. With this idea in mind, we took notice of how the primary cast, consisting of four black characters and one white character, coincided with our group ratio of four white and one black member. This sparked the idea to add another comedic element to the costume, and have the black student go as John Candy and the white students going as the four bobsledders. At this point, several of us was already of aware of what blackfacing was and therefore took out various means of investigation to further our knowledge of the topic and ensure that what we were doing be doing may not be considered similar in anyway. The conclusion that we came to that simply painting our faces dark brown would not be a portrayal of blackface....understand that we did not act in a negative or stereotypical manner [at the party]. We acted ourselves the whole night, and did not internalize the characters."

How is this an apology? I cant stand it when people preface their apology with "we would like to apologize if anyone was offended…" thats not an apology that takes full responsibility for its actions - its one that instead puts the blame on people who were particularly offended!

Continue reading this on the Torontoist

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