By Kathleen Koessler
I understand that this article may hurt some, unfortunately. I also understand that it is impossible for me to have the perspective of someone who is African-American when reading an article comparing wearing blackface as part of a Halloween costume to wearing orange makeup as part of an Oompa Loompa costume. I do know, however, that racism is still a huge problem in America. All you have to do is go on YouTube or any other site where people aren’t afraid of saying what they think due to online anonymity. It’s not just on web media; empirical evidence shows that racism is still a serious issue in our nation.
Every serious issue, however, needs to be addressed with a serious and thoughtful approach. Unfortunately, it is not always addressed this way, and last Monday night was an example of when it is addressed the wrong way. For those of you who didn’t hear about it, here’s what happened: A group of about 50 students went down to the Pipe Dream office at 6 pm to protest an article titled “Dressing as another race isn’t always offensive: Sometimes a costume is just a costume”. The protestors demanded not only that an apology be made in the next issue of Pipe Dream (and it was), but also that the author of the article be dismissed and that the paper appoint affirmative action writers from multicultural groups on campus. A majority of the protestors were of minority race but there were many white protestors as well.
The editor-in-chief of Pipe Dream, Christina Pullano, came out and completely sympathized with their concerns, promising an apology in the next issue of Pipe Dream, but was still humiliated by them. Instead of showing her mutual respect, she was screamed at for forty minutes and she was compared to an editor allowing an article denying the history of Holocaust or slavery to be published. The worst comments were the ones directed at her personally, saying the article was “poorly written” and “sucked anyway” and that she “wasn’t doing her job as an editor”. This was after she agreed to write a personal apology and address all of their personal concerns and requests. To be fair, a few people at the protest were respectful, but many were not.
The following day, a news article was written describing the protest, and apologies were stated in the back of the issue from both the original author, Julianne Cuba, and the editor of Pipe Dream. In Christina’s own words, “In short, I’ve never felt worse about myself. I stood as a group of my peers shouted, demanded, glared and, at times, laughed in my face. And they were right.” She went on to say that the article never should have been published in the first place and that she was deeply sorry for what happened.
I can understand why some were offended by her article. It was a naively written, and did not present the other side of the argument over the usage of “blackface”, which is its historical usage. Starting in the eighteenth century and ending in the early nineteenth century, dark facial makeup was used in minstrel shows and other theater performances that depicted African-Americans in very demeaning ways. Also, although the author was not trying to call “black people Oompa Loompas” by comparing blackface to Oompa Loompa costumes, it was easy to misconstrue her article as doing so. Her article also implied that those offended by blackface are themselves racist, which is not true.
Although the article may have sounded insensitive, it was not intentionally racist or hurtful, and was not condoning other usages of “blackface” that have been intentionally racist. It was fine to disagree with the author, but it could have been handled in a mature and thoughtful way. A letter to the editor disagreeing with the article could have been sent in, or a peaceful assembly could have gathered to calmly address their complaints. What was not okay was to humiliate Pipe Dream’s editor and Ms. Cuba and to try to have her fired. Ms. Pullano was not even thanked for writing an apology letter, and no apologies were issued to her for making her feel “worse about herself” than she’s “ever felt”.
Not only do these kinds of reactions cause tensions, but they also draw attention away from true instances of racism. Many believe that racism largely does not exist anymore in America and that those who are deeply concerned about racism should not be. Reactions such as these only propagate this belief. When truly racist events occur, they are worth protesting against, but reacting to minor issues such as this draws attention away from major issues. The protestors also had additional criticisms of the newspaper that were unwarranted. For example, at the protest it was pointed out that there were no African-American students writing opinion articles or on editorial board of the Pipe Dream staff, hinting that the newspaper was discriminatory or even racist. There already was, however, an African-American Social Media Manager on Pipe Dream’s staff, Shavonna Hinton. Also, as was stated in the Editorial Board’s apology, “We have open GIMs every semester, which we advertise all over campus and in B-line, but every semester, disproportionately few students of color apply.”
Automatically turning every instance of perceived underrepresentation into an instance of discrimination hurts the fight for an end to racism. When perceived racism is brought up in the media and in public discourse as often as it is, the conversation about race in America becomes cynical, pessimistic, and angry. The divisive rhetoric of identity politics makes it seem as though no progress has been made at all in the past 50 years, even though so much has. We elected an African-American president in two landslide elections, when 50 years ago Jim Crow laws prevented African-Americans from even voting. When we focus on how much hasn’t changed instead of how much has, we make it harder to make even more progress.
When minorities feel as though they are constantly under the threat of racism and that our society has not changed, it disempowers them. Why was Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement successful? It succeeded because its champions had an optimistic vision for the future and believed that they could overcome their incredibly difficult circumstances, which they did. The modern-day discourse about race has instead been negative, debilitating, and obsessed with what hasn’t changed instead of what has.
Another reason why this was not Dr. King’s protest was its mean-spiritedness. The editor-in-chief was incredibly patient with the protestors and yet she was screamed at and mocked by many (though not all) of the protestors the entire time. This wasn’t even what Martin Luther King did when confronting true racism. He always insisted instead on “loving your enemies”, quoting Jesus, “I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you.” If we cannot do this when a newspaper publishes an article that was insensitive but not truly racist or hateful, what will we do when we have to fight true racism and hate?