UPDATE 9/24: The students pictured below were not in blackface; they were (attempting to) dress as Blue Man Group. Accusations of explicit racism have been corrected below:
incorrect info is struck through and new info is underlined. Full update, and sources for new info below, in the post that succeeds this one.
Okay, friends, I’m not going to sugar-coat this. Bloomington? We have a problem.
This photo was taken Saturday, September 17, on Sixth Street facing west. In the background at left is the Monroe County Courthouse; at right is Sixth Street, which has been barricaded to make room for a large white tent that was one of several venues for the 23rd annual Lotus World Music & Arts Festival. Lotus is a very popular annual event that attracts several thousand people to half a dozen venues in downtown Bloomington (pop. +-85,000); its logo is projected on the front of the tent.
That’s what’s in the background. In the foreground are young white people, casually walking through downtown with
black very dark blue paint covering their faces. They are part of a group of a dozen, fourteen probably undergraduates at Indiana University (enrollment +-48,000, at least half of the city’s population), all clad in black, crossing Sixth on North Walnut Street toward several bars popular with students. One of their party seen in each photo has his face blurred because he was not in black verydarkblueface.
As these photos were taken, around 11:30 pm, I was a block away, in that Lotus tent, acting as the emcee that evening for Grammy-nominated Ghanaian reggae artist Rocky Dawuni, London-based The Dhol Foundation (led by maven of the Punjabi drum Johnny Kalsi, also of Afro-Celt Sound System and Transglobal Underground fame), and the perennial Bloomington favorite, Swedish rap/swing group Movits!, who were performing at that moment for a crowd of almost a thousand screaming fans. I know that the subjects of these photos are not attending the Festival because they’re not wearing the wristbands required to get into the venues. Anyone present that night would have understood instantly where they were going: the bars.
The photos in this post were taken by a professional photographer shooting Lotus on assignment, who for the moment prefers to remain anonymous. He was not sure what to do with them. He gave me all thirty photos and permission to show them, from which I’ve selected the four that most clearly illustrate the incident. This is the statement he wrote to accompany them:
I was asked by several people for these photos after I decided my own Facebook page was not a constructive place for me to post them due to some of the comments I was getting. This really isn’t about me. Several people have also now indicated the face paint may be blue.
However, these are all the images I have of the people who passed me about 11:30 Saturday night dressed all in black, and with dark paint on their faces. I was unable to determine who they are, or why they are dressed this way. If nothing else, these images provide evidence that these people did in fact walk North on Walnut at the intersection of 6th Street at that time. I also met a woman today who said she saw the same or a similar group walking near the garage on 4th Street on the same evening.
Hopefully these images help bring awareness, and a civil dialogue to this subject. I cannot assume what these people in the images were thinking, and if they can be located, maybe they can be asked. I was also informed today that this was reported to the [IU] Dean of Students earlier this week. I would assume they are investigating. So, let’s see what happens.
The photographer is trying to be as non-judgmental as he can. While he didn’t want to speculate as to their thinking, he reported to me in person that as this young woman walked past and showed off, she said to him, “Don’t I look black as f**k?” Another witness to the incident with whom I spoke was standing outside the tent with a young African-American woman, who saw this group crossing the street and scowled; it is hard to see this as anything other than intentional blackface, although information has since come forward that confirms it was not intentional.
The juxtaposition of Lotus — a festival I’ve been involved with since its beginning, which celebrates the diversity of the world’s cultures — and these careless,
casual racists, IU students unable to foresee that their costumes might be problematic, ambling through on their way to drink, leaves me cold with disgust irritated and annoyed. All this is happening in the district I represent as a city councilmember. Let me not be misunderstood: there were far more IU students having a good, non-racist intentionally un-racist time in that tent than are visible in these photos. But we have our share locally of students, coming from some far-off suburb, who’re enjoying themselves some oblivious to their white privilege.
If you are a news organization, I will put you in touch with the photographer about republishing his photos. If you’re just a social-media user, please spread this post around. If you know who these people might be, please email this blog. They need to know that this behavior is not acceptable in our city, should not be acceptable anywhere, and should not be acceptable in 2016, no matter what the political circumstances are in America these days.
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