I’m going to try to be brief because I have a lot of grading to get to.
As some readers may know, the OSU Barometer printed a story encouraging students to dress up in black for a football game, which normally wouldn’t be a problem; however, included with this story was an image of a student in blackface and wearing a wig, which directly connotes the historical use of blackface (Wikipedia).
Barometer columnist Renee Roman Rose wrote a column calling students and the newspaper out for racism, but they initially refused to print it. My friend and gym-mate Eric Stoller wrote a blog post about this case of censorship here and posted her column. The paper finally printed it, and since then there has been a lot of discussions on campus and in town about it (mostly white people being defensive about their actions and dismissing the claims that using blackface is a racist action). The same day that they Barometer printed Renee’s column, they included an editorial apologizing for their actions and ignorance. It was a pretty crappy apology (Rhetorical Wasteland has a reaction to the editorial here).
I’ve been wanting to blog about this for a while, but hadn’t made time yet. Today, it got worse. My friend Luke is an occasional columnist for the Barometer and wrote an column explaining the problems behind their “apology.” However, after submitting his column and it not being printed when they told him to print it, he asked about it. They replied:
We regret to inform you that currently The Daily Barometer is not accepting opposition-editorials on the subject of the October black out at Reser stadium. Op-eds are printed at the discretion of the staff of The Daily Barometer and based on space available in the Forum pages. We will continue to print letters to the editor based on the subject matter, that fall into the criteria: under 300 words, and include name, major, class standing or job title, department name and phone number. The Daily Barometer reserves the right to refuse publication of any submission.
This is, in my opinion, a
bit of a huge run-around, seeing as a) they initially told Luke that they would print the column but had a backlog of columns to print ahead of his; and b) the content of the Barometer has been stark and could use some good content this year.
So, the Barometer is engaging in censorship so that they don’t have to deal with the repercussions of their actions and their bad press. I’ll post Luke’s column here and then get back to grading, but I’ll try to write more about this issue as it unfolds. Luke’s column:
Blackface is not nice.
â€œOh god,â€ you might find yourself wondering, â€œnot another f-ing column about blackface. His tagline even says that heâ€™s brown and uppity, this is probably going to be awful!â€ If this is you, feel free to read the cartoon and move along. I wonâ€™t be offended. Promise.
Still with me? Okay.
Firstly: to the best of my knowledge, black is not an official color of OSU, or at least about as official as the color white. The following is a quote from the OSU Alumni Association website:
â€œUntil the spring of 1893, navy blue was the official color of Corvallis College. All this changed on May 2 when a faculty committee appointed by President John Bloss voted to replace blue with “orange.” Not long after, “black” was selected by the student body as a background color and the Halloweenesque combination has been used ever since.â€
The Barometer has even acknowledged this starkly orange fact, in a â€œCivil War Factoidsâ€ article in November 2002. So our school color seems to be officially orange, with black, white, and a panoply of other colors added at various times to cover up the fact that orange looks good with… well, almost no other color. I’m a drag queen, and I still haven’t found a good way to wear plenty of orange and not look like I have jaundice. For being so important to the history and identity of our university, this information is surprisingly difficult to find on the OSU website. So please, no more “black is an official color” nonsense, at least until it’s absolutely clear that orange is not our only school color.
Moving right along, we come up against the image of the young man in black face paint. The photo was not published because the Barometer is run by a bunch of racist skinheads. No one is saying that. Renee Roman Nose never said that, although lots of people seem to think sheâ€™s calling the Barometer, OSU, and fans of football racist. Read her columns again â€“ sheâ€™s not. Sheâ€™s pointing out that the image of a person with a black painted face is rich with awful historical meanings and usage.
There were many ways to respond to the furor over running the picture. The Barometer editorial board threw a question at readers when responding to the idea that they should have known the historical use of blackface: “…couldn’t that be a good thing that the era of offensive mockery is now far enough behind us that it was not present in our active memory?”
It took me a minute to process that, if only because some kind soul had to put smelling salts under my nose to wake me from my stupor. I went into overdrive thinking about how it was that my beloved, award-winning school newspaper could print something so banal as a response.
After a second revelation and round of smelling salts, the answer was clear: the editorial board must really believe what they wrote. They must not have known the historical meaning of blackface, or how that image is received by people of color familiar with the image.
If you’re wondering why in gay hell I care so much, consider my experience: the â€œera of offensive mockery” is about as far behind me as my flat butt. Others who identify with marginalized communities probably have similar experiences; butt size may vary.
I guess it’s not surprising that the Barometer took this route. There are few (if any) serious repercussions for not knowing the history of media and ethnicity in this country, even for an award-winning student paper. After all, you can just apologize and claim ignorance, silently allow those who point out such instances to be vilified as uppity one-issue writers, and move on. But the problem when folks in dominant groups remain ignorant of the historical citations they make is that no such privilege exists for the â€œothers,â€ which Jerred Taylor pointed out in his letter to the editor last Friday.
If I don’t know the ins and outs of heterosexual culture, I am liable to be physically assaulted or worse by being queer at the wrong place or wrong time. Similarly, if I don’t understand how whiteness is constructed and operated in this country I am liable to face serious negative social, personal, or physical ramifications. The opposite of the two preceding statements is rarely true.
I know the troubling and deeply embedded historical citation being made when someone dresses up like a ninja, slutty Pocahontas, or some other regurgitated stereotype for Halloween – even if they don’t. I understand that a historical citation of a stereotype such as blackface, however accidental or well-intentioned, calls forward the hurt and pain of communities who lived or continue to live with those stereotypes. If you don’t understand why the image of blackface is so powerful, even the mere appearance of blackface, it’s probably because privilege has let you ignore it without consequence.
W.E.B. Du Bois once wrote about a similar phenomenon. He called it “double consciousness,” or the experience of knowing how the culture you live in understands your ethnicity, and how you understand it. He spoke of the difficulties in dealing with the realities of being an American (read: white) and being a Black American. While I can’t take his concept carte blanche and apply it to the identities in my life, it is similar to the effect of being American (read: heterosexual) and living queerly. I’ve noticed that people who aren’t black, or aren’t queer, regularly find this concept difficult or impossible to understand.
And given the way power is organized in this society, it’s not very nice.
So when the Barometer, or other groups comprised of folks who enjoy significant privilege, accidentally offends a marginalized group and attempts to brazenly excuse their behavior with ignorance, we should be vigilant about critiquing the rhetoric of their reason. Behind it could lie something more banal and terrible than should be acceptable to anyone.