Several news stories from Texas brought my gravitas back in full force this past week. Each one raised serious issues about the current battles for Social Justice not only in the Lone Star State, but the larger nation. This is the first of three entries about these news stories. Taken together, these stories confirm that I would really, really, really prefer not to return to Texas next Fall. That, though, might be inevitable. Beyond my personal circumstances, though, these stories also indicate the struggles that face those of us interested in Social Justice.
As I have mentioned previously, people often ask me if “Texas really is that bad.” I consider it worse than many people think possible for 2006. Yet, presuming that Texas is an anomalous “backward” or “regressive” state might not be accurate. I often wonder if Texas actually serves as a harbinger of what will come for the rest of the nation. The first of these three blog entries focuses on race the latter two will focus on queer issues.
Perhaps the most disturbing of these three stories involved several students at Texas A&M University (one of the state’s two flagship universities) making a video entitled “The Adventures of Jaraboem.” A white, male student portrayed the title character in shoe-polish blackface. Within the video, the white student in blackface pretended to be enslaved, prayed to an idol asking to be made a white man, ate a banana, and then cowered as his “white master “ whipped and raped him. The students considered this film “comedy.” Youtube distributed the video until Texas A&M asked it to be removed.
When such events occur, it’s tempting for us to dismiss them as a “few bad apples.” I am here to tell you the U.S. has a whole orchard of these folk. Others simply want to toss up their hands in frustration, saying “That’s just the way some people are in Texas.” I am not convinced, however, by these suggestions. Indeed, this is not even the first time that CoG has addressed issues of blackface minstrelsy. A year ago, I had fears about the return of blackface minstrelsy.
Texas A&M’s video is just the most graphic demonstration of the anxieties or hatred that exists within many white, heterosexual men in this country. All across the nation, college students have been sponsoring “ghetto parties” for the past several years. These events involve students dressing in a combination of blackface or stereotypical costumes with “bling” and “pimp” styles. Both the University of Texas (the allegedly “liberal” alternative to A&M) and Texas A&M witnessed such events. Before you cluck-cluck at Texas, though, similar events appeared at state and private universities in the Midwest and the east coast.
The most recent “ghetto party” occurred on October 28 at Johns Hopkins University. In that case, Sigma Chi Fraternity called the event “Halloween in the Hood” and asked its mostly white invitees to dress as ““macks,” or “hustlas,” or “hoochies.” During the party, the fraternity also hanged the figure of a black man in effigy.
Given the frequency and geographic diversity of these events, we can't just shrug them off as isolated incidents. Blackface performances first appeared in the U.S. shortly before the Civil War. White slaveholders, contrary to popular expectation, did not originate this form of entertainment. Rather, urban northerners both developed and attended blackface minstrelsy in the nineteenth-century. The white, working-class became the most devout audience members of this form of entertainment.
At best, we might conclude that these students are simply ignorant of the long and complicated history of blackface. This lack of awareness of stereotypes as stereotypes, however, suggests that racism persists without check. A more sinister interpretation of these events could suggest that the students intentionally mock people of color to enforce their own sense of racial and class superiority.
In either instance, the students had an underlying presumption about African Americans as ragged and marginal figures on the far-outside of U.S. society. These students drew from the most prolific images of African Americans that circulate in the larger media. The blackface video and the “ghetto parties” shows the continued intersection of race and economic class in the United States.
Obviously, I can’t say that I have specific solutions that will solve racism. If I did, you wouldn’t find me writing a blog. Still, I would suggest that many of us genuinely interested in Social Justice might be asleep or not entirely aware of the depth of hatred and racial animosity that still exists in this country. The fact that these events emerged on university campuses should trouble us all the more. We often imagine universities to be sites far removed from such unthinking racism. Yet, this particular generation of students seems more inclined to these performances than we have seen in decades.
Explanations from students who organize the ghetto parties or make the videos often are not heard. Yet, I think we need to understand what motivates this type of thinking. They might claim that they intended only “to be funny,” but why did they think this particular brand of racial mocking would be so hilarious? What did they imagine to be at stake here? How did they come to the point where they could so callously dehumanize another group of people? We have to understand their thinking if we are ever going to address racism effectively.
Answering these questions requires all of us to once again interrogate the real ways that race and economic class informs our daily lives. At times uncomfortable, we will need to break the fear of discussing the meanings ascribed to racial difference.
We can also eschew well-meaning efforts to claim that racial difference is “meaningless” or “irrelevant” in the modern nation. Ghetto parties and other blackface entertainments highlight that race still has tremendous currency in the United States. Racist stereotypes from a century ago prove durable as white college-students currently reformulate them for their own amusement. Wishing for a color-blind society only makes us blind to racism, not racial difference.