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don't believe everything you hear
major university chancellor claiming insensitivity should be claiming personal ignorance
by jeffrey d. walker

If you lived in Syracuse, New York in May of this year, you would have likely seen or heard a headline about a Syracuse University Student who was in trouble because he dressed in "blackface."

One can imagine the uproar surrounding this topic. And when using such a term as blackface, it's easy to understand why. "Blackface" refers to a troupe of white actors who blackened their faces with a dark ashen substance, drew on overly accentuated red lips, and proceeded to portray blacks as racist caricatures in song-and-dance "minstrel shows." These shows were a common form of American entertainment from the late 1800's into the first part of the last century. The actors portrayed blacks as habitual thieves who would steal watermelons or chickens in the middle of the night. The actors portrayed blacks as having unrestrained sexual urges; men were labeled as "savages" who could not resist the taking of women and often preyed on white women in a "menacing" fashion, while black women were represented as craving sex so much that they would beseech all males for carnal fulfillment. The caricatures had names like Zip Coon, Mammy, Rastus, Aunt Jemima, or Uncle Tom, each moniker carrying with is some nasty insinuation immediately recognized and accepted by the audiences (most of whom were white). Put quite simply, blacks were depicted as immoral, sex-crazed buffoons. These minstrel shows were just one of the tools used historically by whites to justify racism and segregation, and is just one of the reasons for persisting fears about the black race today. This, in a nutshell, is the history of blackface in America.

So when I heard about a student wearing blackface on the news, I stopped to watch. And I listened.

It seemed that a young man by the name of Aaron Levine, a senior at Syracuse University, was on a "bar-golf" tour where the members of his fraternity (Sigma Alpha Epsilon) would buy two drinks at four different bars for each of the graduating brothers. This was an exciting event for the SAE boys, and it wasn't uncommon for them to dress up in costumes for the occasion. Aaron, keeping with the golf theme, decided to dress up as pro-golfer Tiger Woods. He wore a golf-shirt sporting the infamous Nike Swoop, exactly like Tiger Woods would have been wearing. He wore a cap like Tiger would have. He even had another friend dress up as Fluff (Wood's caddy) and follow him around that evening. One report said that he had a golf club in hand for part of the time. However, his costume also consisted of Aaron dressing up in "blackface"; or so the headlines would have you believe.

And then there it was. There was a picture on the late news on May 7th, the evening of the "blackface" incident. And I looked at the picture. The hue on the young man's skin in the photograph could hardly be likened to blackface. It looked more like he had spent a good portion of the day putting on sunless tanning lotion. The color was not simply on the front of his face, but also on his exposed arms and hands sticking out from his shirt. There were no overly accentuated red lips. Unlike the minstrel show, whose actors dressed in degrading rags indicative of a slave, this kid was dressed like a well-to-do mixed-skin-toned individual out for a day of golf.

But more importantly, what was noticeably missing from the report (and each subsequently released report) was the allegation that Aaron or any of his fraternity brothers had acted in a racially prejudiced manner. No offensive statements, behavior, or anything of the sort was alleged. An undisputed statement from Sigma Alpha Epsilon, as well as reports in the Daily Orange (Syracuse University's student newspaper) indicated that Aaron went home and showered the makeup off when campus police were summoned to the bar where he was. All in all, nothing about this event was reported to be anything as offensive as the term "blackface" suggested.

Despite this, a group of students uniting themselves under the boring title, "Concerned Students of Syracuse University" shot off a memo to the University Chancellor alleging that Aaron was in public dressed in a manner "resembling the historically offensive blackface caricature." This was followed by protests of various kinds demanding "justice." Students of both races, most of whom were not present when Aaron was wearing his costume, showed up to express their outrage about the "blackface" incident.

The best part about the allegation that Aaron was dressed in "blackface" is that it's barely a half-truth. The worst part about this allegation was that Syracuse University Chancellor Kenneth Shaw heeded the student's protests and suspended the fraternity from Syracuse University, disciplined Aaron individually (the punishment is undisclosed), and demanded "sensitivity training" classes all around. This despite the fact that the statement made by the "Concerned Students" only alleged that Aaron wore dark makeup (A/K/A "blackface"), but gave no indication as to how Aaron's conduct was "offensive." It only seemed to indicate that Aaron's guilt was clear by its nature.

Even more shocking was how the Chancellor (in a statement released by the University) indicated that he "was appalled by the incident of Tuesday night," but also did nothing to explain how the conduct was offensive. The protests, meetings, released statements, and suspension all occurred the very next day (May 8th). The school hardly mentioned the episode again.

In the aftermath, nobody explained what was so offensive about Aaron's actions. Witnesses to the event in describing Aaron's demeanor said only that he appeared "drunk." No one claimed that Aaron acted disrespectfully. The only claim is that Aaron darkened his skin to add authenticity to his costume. Therefore, I'm pretty confused as to what people who wish to be "sensitive" are supposed to learn from this incident. I mean, given that there was a punishment imposed, and given the statements condemning the actions of Aaron made by the University Chancellor, I can surmise that something was done wrong. But for the life of me, I can't figure out exactly what it was.

Is it inherently insensitive to dress as a black individual if you aren't one? What about a mask? On past Halloweens, there have been O.J. Simpson and Johnny Cochran masks. Are these not to be purchased or worn by white people? Or if masks are O.K., but you don't have one, are white people NOT allowed to alter their skin in any way to appear darker?

If it is insensitive to dress as a black person, then what about when it's done on television? I couldn't begin to count the episodes of MAD TV or Saturday Night Live where a white actor dressed as a black person. Or what about The Man Show's "Karl Malone" character? If you have missed this, Jimmy Kimmel dons a basketball jersey, and paints his exposed arms, face, and false baldhead to a dark complexion (much darker than the photo of Levine). Kimmel not only dresses up like a black man, but then proceeds to mimic a stereotypical dumb black athlete who makes a fool of himself each time he's asked to comment on a current subject that the average person should understand. The skits (I have seen at least two myself) fit into the old-time minstrel show spirit perfectly. However, rather than public outcry about this character, the only feedback I've heard comes from two viewers on the Comedy Central web site who suggest that "Karl Malone" should host his own show.

What happens if someone is not wearing a costume at all, but simply over-applied a bottle of sunless tanning lotion in an attempt to give his or her skin a different look? Are people seeking a glowing complexion instead going to be hauled off to classes because they are insensitive?

Maybe the lesson is, if you are dressing up in a costume, it just isn't allowed to be very good. Perhaps Aaron could have dressed up like Tiger Woods, but not altered his skin in any way. His evening then might have gone something like this:

Guy in bar: "Who are you supposed to be?"
Aaron Levine: "Tiger Woods."
Guy in bar: (Long Pause) "Oh."

If this is the rule, this encourages those who wear costumes to do so only if they are dressing like someone who matches their own skin tone, or (in the alternative) to dress like someone not your own skin tone, but not really do a good job because you won't really look like the character you are portraying. Is this reasonable?

In the end, I have no idea what message of morality Syracuse University is trying to teach its students. It seems more likely that the administration is too scared to attempt a legitimate debate on the topic of race. Instead of opening up a real dialogue to address issues of race, Syracuse University instead chose to quickly dismiss the problem as quietly as possible.

Moreover, the University did nothing to try to assist a young man who was, for all practical purposes, slandered by a mob of overly sensitive students who were either too ignorant about the history of blackface to understand what is or isn't an instance of racial intolerance, or who simply chose to believe rhetoric rather than taking time to examine the facts. I do not know if it was the "Concerned Students" or the media who first linked the word "blackface" with this story, but both of these entities as well as Syracuse University are guilty of blowing an event that may have been a great catalyst for addressing the sensitive topic of race in this country, and instead allowed the episode to degenerate into just another sensationalized headline.

I suppose there are a couple of items to draw from this episode:
(1) The Chancellor of Syracuse University, who by no indication really allowed Aaron or SAE fraternity a chance to defend themselves before suspending them, either didn't get all his facts, or instead simply bent to the will of a mob.
(2) The rights of an individual can be trampled on at will in the year 2002 if the right politically or racially charged terms are used.
(3) Even a reputable private school can't seem to adequately address racial issues in this country. If these discussions cannot occur on the college level, what chance does the rest of our nation really have?

writer's note: The picture that appeared on the news the night of the incident to my knowledge has never appeared on the news again; I suspect the University had something to do with that. Also, I cannot verify if the photo was taken before or after the makeup was washed off. If he was much darker at some time, then he wouldn't even fall into the good costume category (shame on him). University transcripts of the meeting with the "concerned students", including a long list of comments from people who disagree with the university's stance can be seen here.


A practicing attorney and semi-professional musician, Walker writes for his own amusement, for the sake of opinion, to garner a couple of laughs, and to perhaps provoke a question or two, but otherwise, he doesn't think it'll amount to much.

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wendy p
7.15.02 @ 12:15a

The letter from the concerned students depicts this as a hate crime. How is dressing up like Tiger Woods and being seen drinking a hate crime?
I don't want to belittle the incidents that may have gone before, but putting this incident in the same category seems a bit much.

matt morin
7.15.02 @ 12:20a

I think a group of people saw the Poor Judgement Wagon go by, thought it was the Racism Bus, and all jumped on.

At worst, it sounds like maybe the kid could have been a little more sensitive. At best, it sounds like he had a pretty good costume.

tracey kelley
7.15.02 @ 10:43a

Michael Jackson - no longer the Ping of Kwop (hugs and smooches to anyone besides Jael who gets that particular type of reference)because his style of music:
1) sucks
2) is 20 years old

Now the music industry is racist, as well as headed by a gay mafia. Ohmygod. I heard both Dennis Miller and Robin Williams say this weekend "Michael, you have to PICK a race first."

evan lipton
7.15.02 @ 1:53p

Jeff- you are precisely right... As a student who was here for this 'incident', the Chancellor rushed to give his support without really defining what wrong this student committed. I have been to costume parties where people came dressed up with darker makeup on their face... it's called realism in costumes. I am a big guy, but I could not dress up as Shaq just by shaving my head... that would be a bad costume... similarly, if one wants to dress up as Tiger, that person's complexion has to get darker. How far will this slippery slope go? Can females not dress up as males, can jewish people not dress up as Christians, and so on...By this logic (apparently) strongly embraced by some students as well as the Chancellor of this university, I could not dress up as anything but a white, jewish, man who doesn't have any character traits other than those I possess... There goes my Ned Flanders costume for next year. And that isn't because of the religious thing; Ned is a cartoon, and I am not... wouldn't want to cross that line!!!

jeffrey walker
7.17.02 @ 10:59a

Evan is a big guy. I wouldn't try to cross ANY line with him!!
More conversations after the fact with some black undergrad students make it seem as though Syracuse was more hasty b/c they didn't want this story to hit the press. On the 8th, the suspension was passed down seemingly in exchange for the "concerned students" to stop protesting where all the evening news cameras would notice. This kid got sold down the river by the University so that they wouldn't look bad on T.V., and a lot of it is because they've been screwing up race issues here repeatedly!


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