By RON FANFAIR
University of Toronto faculty and students are upset over the administration’s failure in dealing with a racially sensitive issue that has caused concern on campus.
Last October, five students – four White and one Black – dressed up in “costume” as the Jamaican bobsled team from the film, Cool Runnings, for a Halloween party. The White students wore Blackface as part of their outfit while the Black student wore a white painted face.
Students and faculty members immediately recognized the insensitivity and raised concerns, given the long history of Blackface performance and minstrelsy in demeaning Blacks and systematically caricaturing Black culture.
The university’s administration did not issue an immediate response or public statement, prompting some faculty staff, the university’s Black Students Association and the Students Union to organize a successful town hall meeting which concluded that the Blackface incident is representative of much deeper issues on campus.
(At public hearings last month before the Canadian Parliamentary Commission to combat anti-Semitism, U of T assistant vice-president of Strategic Communications, Robert Steiner, said that the university’s administration had taken the lead in working with concerned students to organize and facilitate a public town hall meeting to deal with the Blackface incident.)
Three of the university’s colleges – St. Michael’s, University and Victoria – hosted the party. Associate Professor of History, Dr. Melanie Newton, told Share that University College issued an apology and there is evidence that the administration took the matter quite seriously. She said the other two colleges have issued statements of regret, but have refused to apologize.
To make matters worse, St. Michael’s awarded the Best Costume prize to the “Blackface” group.
“We don’t have an issue with the costumes,” said Newton. “The real issue is that theses student organizations, as representatives of their colleges, did not recognize how offensive it was and actually rewarded this offensive costume.”
In a public statement, Newton and other faculty and students said the lack of action by the university’s senior administration suggests that Black students are not equally valued members of the university community and that concerns surrounding the alienation of other non-White students can be ignored or sidestepped.
“This issue was really symptomatic and what it really revealed was sort of deep fissures at U of T on questions of racism and that questions of equity and diversity need to be taken much more seriously at higher administrative levels than they have been in recent years,” said Associate Professor of Women and Gender Studies, Dr. Alissa Trotz.
“One of the problems is that people seem to see academic excellence and diversity as an either/or situation and that, somehow, if you promote equity and diversity, you are diluting the academic excellence mandate, which is really dangerous. What is missing is in fact the relationship between intellectual diversity and academic excellence.
“The most hopeful sign coming out of this is that the administration has signaled a desire to engage faculty and students in conversations around the kind of medium and long term policies that it can implement to really try to shift public perceptions of the U of T as well as to try to engage in transformative changes within the university…
“While I am sure that some senior administrators see us as giving the university a bad name, what their annoyance with us prevents them from recognizing is the fact that we are proud to belong to the university community and that our criticism was inspired by that pride, a constant interest in what is done or, as in this case, not done in our names as members of that community.”
In their apology, the five students explained that throughout their childhood, Cool Runnings was something they reflected on with fond memories, hence the reason for their choice of Halloween costumes.
“The conclusion that we came to that simply painting our faces dark brown would not be a portrayal of Blackface,” they said. “We acted ourselves the whole night and did not internalize the characters.”
U of T Associate Professor of Social Justice and Cultural Studies, Dr. Rinaldo Walcott, disagreed with the students’ position.
“I think that in particular (Cool Runnings) became a part of the popular culture imagination of White Canadians. In a way they took responsibility for that film as though it was somehow an extension of them,” he said. “And one of the reasons that I think Canadians identified with that film so deeply is because that film weathered something that many White Canadians come to believe strongly (and that is) that Black people don’t actually belong here; that we are an insertion into a landscape that is not actually a landscape where we naturally fit.
“For Black people who understand this history, Cool Runnings was never a funny film. It in fact replicated all of the techniques of Blackface. It is one of the ways that we have come to see that Blackface does not require painting of Blackface anymore.”
This is not the first time that Blackface has surfaced on a college campus.
Last Halloween, two Northwestern University students attended a party partly dressed in Blackface, sparking a public outcry. Eight years ago, 10 members of two White Auburn University fraternities were suspended for, among other things, performing in Blackface costumes.