A Pandora’s Box of Racism: Institutional Support for Blackface at a “Liberal” University in Bed-Stuy

Nestled neatly between the neighborhoods of Clinton Hill and Bed-Stuy lies the Pratt Institute, a school where aspiring creative minds go tounleash themselves upon the art world. Pratt has always prided itself on famed Alumni like Betsey Johnson and pristine lawns. It prides itself on keeping its students safe – it’s not like those other universities.

But Pratt has a history of sweeping its students’ concerns under the rug. So, I don’t know why I was surprised when I found out the Communications Design department rewarded a white student with $300 and the “Most Brooklyn” title at a Halloween costume party for a “Voodoo Priest” costume. Complete with dreadlocks and blackface! I don’t know why I was surprised that no one kicked up a fuss about it either. Pratt has proven time and time again to not truly care for the well-being of their students – rather they simply care that you make something of yourself to make them look better.

But why? Why had this costume gotten so far as to be awarded anything? Why does Matthew Peters’ pre-party selfie have 78 likes on it and all positive compliments akin to “whoa, bro, that’s beautiful makeup!” Why didn’t his friends tell him to not attend this party in blackface? Why did no one in the Communications Design department pull him aside? Because white creativity has always been more highly valued than Black feelings. We praise Banksy when he claims urban spaces for himself, but prosecute young, Black graffiti artists for doing the same. The Banksies of the world are just so brilliant.

Pratt demonstrated this in an email response to concerned alumni saying, “… the line between creativity and offense can be a slight one… We saw this costume as being on the creative side of the line.” The letter goes onto say that voodoo is a Brooklyn reality. That’s not the problem. Nobody is offended by voodoo or rich Haitian culture. They’re offended that a non-Haitian person has donned a costume that has historically been used todehumanize them. At the end of the day Matthew Peters gets to wipe off his makeup and remove his locked wig while Black people are ridiculed for the color of their skin, told to wear their hair “more professionally” and that their religion is evil. The problem lies in a white student believing it’s okay and “creative” to steal a culture that is not his to take.

In reality, Pratt is no different than the many universities under fire for racist goings-on. The only difference is that no one wants to talk about it. And why would they when they’re constantly met with emails dismissing them saying, “One of our judges actually has a friend who performs Haitian dance professionally and teaches on the subject…” As though that automatically makes that judge an expert on what is racist and what is not. It’s even more disheartening when response from non-white professors is, “It’s offensive but not shocking because throughout the years I’ve personally heard comments by faculty that were, at the very least, racially insensitive…”

No, Pratt students aren’t directly threatening Black lives like Mizzou, but they are cultivating a space where non-white students feel unwelcome, and that can be a telling sign of trouble to come. When we let casual racism slide, it opens the door for much worse. White students shouldn’t be the only ones who get a say. If Peters’ costume is a matter of opinion, why are the voices of students being silenced?

When Matthew Peters walked into the Pratt Studios 4th floor, all that mattered was that he was a spectacle, a product of Pratt’s nurturing bosom for white art. Suddenly, everyone including the professors who judged the competition, forgot about the many years of oppression Black people have experienced, forgot about minstrel shows and blackface. Forgot about their colleagues and students that are not white. All of their fancy, liberal education just flew right out the window and onto that perfect, manicured lawn.