This is a long post. There’s lots of ground to cover. I hope it addresses all the concerns people have brought up since yesterday’s post exploded via social media, but it may require more dialogue. Just know at the outset:
- I’ve been up all night writing this follow-up post, and correcting the one that’s gone viral since receiving new information. As a result, I may have to correct this post too, and it may take more than a day.
- I’m not out for blood; no one else should be, either. But nor do I think this post settles the case — not by a long shot.
- In the same way that I didn’t want to name the photographer, I had no desire to name the specific people in his photos, nor anyone who wore the outfits in question. Everyone needs to have an open mind or it’s not dialogue.
First things first. I stand corrected: the subjects of the photos published on this blog yesterday were not in blackface last Saturday night. They say they were dressed up as Blue Man Group, and were out on a fraternity/sorority bar crawl. (Undergraduates at IU? Check. Going to the usual student bars? I was right about both of those things. I know my city.)
Received by me last night are the following two photos, and a letter explaining their intent. It’s pretty clear that their faces are blue. The only thing I have done to the photos is downsize them, the larger to 800 pixels across, the smaller to match the height of the larger.
There is misinformation that the students intentionally dressed in black face and not in blue face. That said the perception and resulting hurt is real.
We understand that the photos could seemingly demonstrate a group of students dressed in blackface, but this was not the case. Regardless, as a community we take cultural insensitivity very seriously. On chapter, council, and campus levels there are programs, events, discussions and dialogues happening around diversity and inclusion issues.
As leaders of our community in an education environment, we have an incredible opportunity to both educate our members and work to solve complex diversity issues. Therefore, we will continue to hold our members to high standards and work to uphold the values of our organizations.
The Indiana University Interfraternity Council and Panhellenic Association
In other words, they did not set out to be publicly racist. One of the women wrote “BMG” on herself. There are several other photos floating around showing people in blueface in lit rooms. I take them at their word, and believe they mean well. I believe everyone else should cut them that much slack. I’ve updated yesterday’s post accordingly.
So, credit where it’s due, or rather, no debit where it’s not due. I’ll grant them more: Their idea for a costume was interesting and respectable. There are many more blatantly racist costumes out there.The students obviously put some effort into it. It had the potential to have been perfectly charming.
However, this is where the compliments end.
First, it has to be said, white Greeks: despite your letter, which is welcome, the point isn’t that you weren’t in blackface. The point is that so many people thought you were that even you could “understand that the photos could seemingly demonstrate” blackface. The new question is, how did it happen, and why did you collectively let it? Again, you’re not bad people. You’re not stupid. You’re trying, and you want to try. That’s all important. But there’s a lot of ignorance in your ranks. Ignorance isn’t the same as stupidity; ignorance can be fixed. But everything else about this incident betrayed among these bar crawlers a staggering ignorance of American history.
Second, we have to address the insufficient thought that went into the costumes. They weren’t exactly, you know, detailed. No one, for example is wearing a bald cap, or has painted their head completely blue. The blue of the gloves is lavender at best, far lighter than their facepaint. Everyone’s ears are showing. In fact, everyone has non-blue skin exposed: necks, shoulders, décolletage, midriff, legs; worst, most everyone has left their lips and eye sockets unpainted. (The Blue Men would never do this; you’ll see why just below.)
And in this well-lit room, the blue on some of the faces is so dark it merges with the black of their shirts.
The Blue Men, even in a dark theatre with black backgrounds, are always well-lit. They never appear in conditions where they might be mistaken for anything else. Although it may not be the actual skin color of any human on this planet, blue is darker than Caucasian skin. In poor light, it is the least distinguishable of colors.
The result? Outside of the room in which the students’ photos were taken, at midnight, in public places — which don’t have stage lighting — our bar-crawling would-be Blue Men looked to people more like this — Sarah Silverman in her blackface turn:
or this. The character singing is rich, powerful, and so privileged he can get away with this routine even in the 1960s (start at 12 seconds in):
That’s what people like the photographer saw that night. That’s what I saw when he showed me the photos. That’s what thousands of people who have seen the photos since saw. The bar crawlers looked like minstrels.
There is a long and terrible history of racist stereotypes that come from the tradition of minstrel shows:
White minstrel show producers created a black persona of sorts that was an offensive caricature of what they perceived black folk to be. Specifically plantation slaves and other free blacks during that time period.
Black people were portrayed as stupid, ignorant, almost child like in their thought process, or ostentatious buffoons that had no grasp on how to be a part of a functioning society.
They were negative, highly offensive, and nasty perceptions of black folk during a time when actual black people were not even allowed to read let alone be in a play. The black face carried on for years and years and decades to come from plays to television.
Spike Lee assembled a highlight reel of motion-picture blackface that shows how vast was its scope throughout the 20th century. Notice things like the white gloves, or the unmade-up lips:
Without a lot of effort, you could find how much worse minstrelsy was in the 19th century.
If you’re unfamiliar with this history, now you know why everybody’s mad: blackface is so horribly racist that it’s intolerable. It didn’t matter that the students didn’t mean it; at night on the street under mercury vapor lamps, they still looked like they were in blackface.
Frankly, my fellow white people, I don’t understand why you would attempt any costume that requires you to darken your skin color. You don’t do the Blue Men unless you are as meticulous as the Blue Men themselves. You’re accustomed to so many privileges that you don’t even know you have them sometimes — like, say, the ability to go through life so unaware of the history above that it wouldn’t occur to you to watch out for this pitfall.
What else do you not know about racism? Just in Bloomington alone, I can name the following:
- The house at 700 N. Walnut, as it was being considered for historic designation by the City Council, was found to still have a restrictive covenant written in 1938 that prevented its sale to black people. It was of course no longer enforceable…but it was still on the books.
- I’ve seen a photo (that I don’t have handy and is not yet online) that shows a 1920s or 1930s Klan rally marching up Walnut Street between 6th and 7th…the very spot where the students in blueface were walking last week.
- The longest-serving member of the IU Board of Trustees was racist AF…yet the Intramural Center is still named after him. (I have more of his letters than appear in this seminal IDS article from 2007 that just show him in a worse light.) You likely walk past this building without a second thought.
- Yesterday’s post was shared more than 238 times from the Councilmanic Facebook page alone. It received more than 14,000 hits in the 24 hours since it went up. Anyone who thinks those photos didn’t look racist, however unintentionally, is kidding themselves.
Ironically, perhaps now the bluefacers can appreciate another problem that African-Americans have always faced: being photographed poorly. When the world uses Shirley cards to balance their film (back in the day), cameras, and light meters, darker skin tones come out terribly in photographs. Had the bluefacers blued all their exposed skin, their faces in their photos would have come out less dark, because it wasn’t contrasting dramatically with Caucasian-ness. Instead, several people in their photo look darker than others. Welcome to the world of people of color.
It so happens that in May the College of Arts and Sciences announced the theme for Fall 2017’s Themester: Diversity • Difference • Otherness. It can’t come soon enough.
For what it’s worth, I have a story to conclude with about dumb costume choices.
I am very tall. In my mid-twenties I had the idea to dress up as a skyscraper. I chose the Sears Tower for my first effort. I had refrigerator boxes, black paper, a silver marker, and a couple of teacher’s pointers. It came out pretty good, I thought. I could move around just enough to have a dance move: I could sway my hips to the right while my hands in the air would sweep to the left, then vice versa. I called it “the Earthquake.”
The next year, I thought, hey, that worked out well; let’s try another iconic building. So I chose San Francisco’s Transamerica Pyramid. I built it, got in it, put on the headpiece and looked in the mirror. And I realized I wasn’t going anywhere in that thing.
Go ahead, Google “Transamerica Pyramid.” I’ll wait. Think about what a person would look like dressed that way.
That’s right. The costume made me look like a Klansman.
I was in San Francisco this year with a car full of friends. When the Lyft driver heard my story, he touched his forehead to the steering wheel in sudden, horrific recognition. Perhaps he did not have a sufficiently midwestern point of view to have seen it before, but he had never thought of the City by the Bay’s tallest building that way.
The only difference between me and the bar-crawlers is: I recognized my mistake before I went out, which I’m grateful for to this day. I want for them to gain the ability to foresee such mishaps. I hope that this post, and this incident, gives them some of the understanding they need to get there.
Disclaimer: I do not speak for any of my colleagues, for the Council as a whole, or for the city of Bloomington as a whole. I speak for myself, period. No part of this blog is “official” in any way. I write about issues that come up as a matter of course in being an elected official, but usually after the fact.
Disclaimer on photographs: Some comments I received questioned the color balance of the photos posted yesterday: could they not have been lightened to bring out the blue color of the paint? This is a question worth answering. First, the photographer has been working professionally for decades and used professional equipment. The photos he submitted me were very large files. I, on the other hand, have virtually no skills as an editor or retoucher of photographs. The photos I posted were only adjusted in two ways: to blur the face of someone who wasn’t in
blackblueface, and to reduce the width of the photo to my blog’s standard of 800 pixels from the 5760 pixels of the original, optimizing an 8 MB file to less than 100 KB. I am fielding requests to contact the photographer for those who want to see the photos in more detail.
Technical matters: The blog went down around 11 pm Friday night for about an hour. This may have been because the site’s webhosting company had unrelated problems; it may also have been because the site was simply not built to handle so many hits to a single post in one day. The upside: after some tinkering with WordPress, this blog is now engineered to handle something going viral again. God, I hope that doesn’t happen soon. If you had trouble accessing the site at all in the past 24 hours, now you know (and now I know a lot more about WordPress).
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