Blackface. Chains. Baggy Pants. There it is again. Another university fraternity party engaging in some classic racism. On October 6, fraternity brothers of Sigma Phi Epsilon and sorority sisters of Alpha Phi took part in reproducing racist stereotypes. Just in case you are wondering, yes it is 2015. And yes, the nation is currently engaged in a national Black Lives Matter movement to bring attention to the horrendous and fatal material implications of anti-Black racism. But no matter for University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) students, the party must go on.
To some, it may seem like a shock that UCLA students held a Blackface party, that is a party in which white students participated in putting Black charcoal on their faces to resemble Black skin. This “Kanye Western” themed party has produced an uproar which should allow for a discussion on race, racial violence and white supremacy, particularly at the university. However, it seems that the media outrage is centered on this one act of Blackface – and only this act – as a neatly packaged act of detestable racism which simply need be removed. Get rid of Blackface and everything will go back to its colorblind glory, so to speak.
The general theme of the media response to this debacle is to grudgingly accept the idea that Blackface is, in fact, wrong, while undermining and invalidating Black students every step of the way. Questioning the legitimacy of the Black student critique as well as implying it is an unnecessary overreaction, the media spectacle forming around this Blackface party is disallowing an overarching critique of how racism is embedded in the Greek system and in the university. By prioritizing certain narratives over others, refusing to define racism as racism, labeling legitimate critiques as allegations, as well as a myriad of derailment tactics, the media response is structured in a way which disallows genuine critique and becomes a means of silencing Black students. Nonetheless, the tone is generally discouraging of blatant acts of racism, such as performing Blackface, but only blatant acts of racism. So what does that mean for the not-so-blatant racism? Or rather, what does that mean for everyday life at UCLA for students of color?
What took place on the night of October 6, 2015, in the Sigma Phi Epsilon house is not a singular problem of Black charcoal being rubbed on a few white faces. Rather it is a broader systemic issue of white privilege being acted on with impunity across the university. White skin, and the privileges which come with it, used as a power to act in ways which reify racial stereotypes and hierarchies is insulting, regardless of how it manifests. Using one’s white skin to ridicule, disgrace and ultimately dehumanize people of color is racist across the board. Even if there had been no Blackface, the problem of white students appropriating stereotypical Black culture (and celebrating it for that matter) is wrong.
Racism is very much alive and well on the UCLA campus. Racism is very much alive and well on all university campuses, as it is in all institutions, because racism is very much alive and well. Period. The point of frustration lies in how it takes a flagrantly insulting and belittling event, such as this Blackface party, for the university to realize that this campus is not exactly a paradise for students of color. In fact, students of color have been organizing to bring attention to the rampant racism on the UCLA campus, such as the 33 at UCLA Law, The Black Bruins, and the Racist Bruin project, in addition to the Black Bruins Matter protest in response to the Blackface party.
However, what does it mean that these parties keep happening? It means that racism is not actually being dealt with. Blackface comes and goes. Appropriation comes and goes. White frats get slaps on the wrist, if even that. And students of color shoulder the burdens of a racist campus climate. That is why it is of fundamental importance to take these instances and make room for discussing the material implications of racism. It is imperative that we do not allow the media spectacle to erase the histories and systems of power which are at play. We must ensure that the media hype which emerges does not, in fact, decontextualize, reduce, nor erase the very real histories of racism in this country. Reframing the issue is imperative in order to understand exactly how, where and why white privilege is deployed, and more importantly, how it is institutionally protected. As Safiya Umoja Noble, assistant professor in the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA, argues, “What the spectacle of the mass media has failed to do yet is to help us reframe our ability to talk about race, power, and privilege in the long view.” In order to engage in a national conversation on racial justice, “we must continue to interrogate how the [media] spectacle swallows the whole story,” as we work towards dismantling systems of violence.