When two students used blackface as part of their Halloween costumes on Saturday, some members of the Northwestern community responded with outrage, but others remained confused as to why these actions were offensive at all.
In light of the blackface incident and recent instances of racial profiling, Associated Student Government, Student Affairs and the Coalition of Colors united to put on a public forum Thursday evening to discuss blackface and other racial issues at Northwestern.
The forum, which packed the Louis Room at Norris, aimed to provide a safe, public place where community members could discuss issues of race and how individual students’ actions reflect the culture of Northwestern as a whole. The event, which University President Morton Schapiro attended, also anticipated a series of steps to deal with racism and prejudice at the university.
Sandra Richards, African-American studies and theatre professor, spoke about the history of blackface and explained why it is still considered offensive today. The practice dates back to the middle of the 19th century, she said, when white comedians and stage performers began painting their faces black to create a comical, stereotypically black character. Moreover, black actors were forced to paint their faces with burnt charcoal to find work since audiences wanted to see actual blackface.
“Blackface continues to wound,” Richards said. “It continues to say ‘you don’t belong.’”
Professor Barnor Hesse of the African-American studies department took the stage to facilitate the larger discussion of the evening.
“The question of race depends on your interest,” Hesse said. “The relationship of interest to race is crucial. It does not turn on how much you understand it — the commitment is to tackling the issues and then to engage with understanding.”
Blackface became a hot-button issue when the audience joined in to discuss their opinions. Some were applauded for insightful statements, while others received groans and boos from the rest of the crowd.
Some students at the forum suggested that blackface should be considered in terms of the perpetrators’ intent. If it wasn’t malicious, it wasn’t racist, some said.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, a third-year graduate student in the African-American studies department, disagreed. “Looking at intent is the wrong way to focus on the issue,” she said. “That approach leaves it up to the perpetrators to decide whether something was racist, but we should look at how it affects life for black students.”
Taylor also cited the Northwestern police reports, which according to her stigmatize black males on campus by identifying suspects of sexual assault or theft as young black men without any other identifiers. She urged the administration to discontinue this practice on the part of the Northwestern police.
SESP freshman, Zoe Goodman spoke of her involvement in For Members Only, Northwestern’s black student alliance, and encouraged others to get involved in activities that take them out of their comfort zones.
“Before I moved to Evanston, I didn’t really know any black people,” Goodman said. “But FMO has been so friendly and welcoming to me, and I’m excited now.”
After hearing students’ opinions on the roots of racial profiling problems at Northwestern and suggestions for solutions, President Morton Schapiro addressed the audience and promised to work toward change.
“If you really love something, you’d better be critical of it,” Schapiro said. “I realize that there are a lot of things to work on. So when I hear stories of profiling, I know I’ve got to deal with that.”
He also stressed the role of the entire community in effecting change and added that the administration alone cannot solve the problems of racism for the whole university.
“Hold me accountable for a lot of things, but I’m holding you accountable as well,” he told the crowd. “If you love this community, or even if you’re just a part of it, you have as much responsibility as I do.”