About and month and a half ago, a junior at Oregon State University came up with the seemingly innocent idea that student fans wearing all black at the Oct. 6 home football game would be a great show of school spirit, as orange and black are the traditional school colors.
About and month and a half ago, a junior at Oregon State University came up with the seemingly innocent idea that student fans wearing all black at the Oct. 6 home football game would be a great show of school spirit, as orange and black are the traditional school colors. The event was dubbed “Blackout Reser.” On Oct. 5, the OSU student newspaper The Daily Barometer ran a graphic in support of the event featuring a student in black face and body paint, urging students to “paint your face black,” as it would scare the opposing team.
A student was also quoted in the issue saying, “A whole stadium of black would be the most intimidating thing I’ve ever seen.” At that Oct. 6 game, many students showed up wearing the body paint, and some even sported Afro-style wigs.
In the aftermath of the event and the Barometer’s coverage of it, many students perceived the body paint as mimicking racist vaudeville acts of the 1920s and 1930s which featured white actors in blackface.
A shit-storm ensued. Renée Roman Nose, a columnist for the Barometer, took issue with Blackout Reser and wrote a column slamming the students who wore blackface and wigs for being racist, and her paper for publishing the graphic. She also reported discontent among OSU’s black population regarding the issue.
The editor-in-chief of the Barometer, Lauren Dillard, held-off printing Roman Nose’s column until a week later alongside an editorial that apologized for the graphic, claiming that the Barometer staff had no idea it could possibly be offensive.
It’s one of the most telling things that the Barometer‘s editors (who are white), as well as many OSU students, were astounded that black face paint could be considered offensive. For so many it contains overtly racist connotations. And yet, for so many, such a thought didn’t even appear on the radar screen. The Barometer‘s apologetic editorial asked, “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?”
But this “era of offensive mockery,” must be present in somebody’s active memory, because otherwise no one would have cared. It just wasn’t present in the active memory of these white students.
A couple weeks ago, black students at OSU staged a silent protest outside Reser Stadium, bearing signs with slogans like, “It’s Not Just Paint,” to which one passer-by yelled, “Go racism!” according to The Oregonian. The newspaper went on to say that other students “walked through the protest instead of around it.” Some halted on their way to the stadium, and joined in.
And while journalists and bloggers have been largely supportive of Roman Nose’s point of view, some OSU students continued to show up to games in blackface, and irate defenders of the blackout campaign have filled online discussion boards with extremely charged comments: “It’s fucking face paint.” “It’s an overreaction from people that want attention.” “Black people need to calm the fuck down.”
So now here we are. What can we do in this hopefully progressive state of ours, which is one of the least racially diverse in the country? First, we have to understand a few things.
One is that in any matter of discrimination, it is a common defense of the accused to say that because the intentions were not offensive, the actions weren’t either. But nobody lives in a vacuum, and everything’s contextual, especially when you’re at a public event, or in a published newspaper, being seen and heard by thousands of people.
Let’s take it to a huge, yet appropriate, extreme: If someone wore a swastika out to a concert, and the wearer proclaimed they were displaying it with the pre-Nazi connotation of luck and well-being, would you expect people not to be offended? Intentions carry only so much weight.
Secondly, one has to realize that calling someone a racist is a pretty weighty charge. In response to the Barometer-printed quote, “A whole stadium of black would be the most intimidating thing I’ve ever seen,” an OSU senior who met with OSU President Edward J. Ray about the issue said to The Oregonian, “Are you saying that dark-skinned people are intimidating or frightening? Yes, that’s racist.”
It seems clear that from the context of the original article, the statement was not racially motivated, and it is a little inflammatory to make such a brazen accusation. Sure, the person could have been more sensitive with his language, but it does little good to immediately extrapolate that his words were racist. In light of such an attitude, it is no wonder that so many students feel attacked. This is not to discount the insensitivity of the blackface and the wigs, but only to make the point that lashing out in such a manner does not heighten understanding.
Lastly, it does no good to any goal of unity to discount someone’s distress. It may seem ludicrous to some people that others are offended by paint on a face, but it has to be realized that for a lot of people, such an image is intensely hurtful. On the flip side, it has to be understood that it is cutting to be called a racist based on actions that were never meant to be perceived as so.
If we really want to try to work towards a non-racist society, if we really think progress can be made (I think it can), if we really want to start inching towards a consensus on this question “What is racist?” then we have to start having these conversations across racial and ideological lines, here at Portland State just as much as anywhere else.
It’s been said that an ever-larger part of the battle against racism is taking place in our hearts and minds. So let’s open both of them, subdue our hostility, our anger, and reach across the table. It starts with you and me.