‘Blackface’ incident ignites campus

by Sophie Johnson
WHITMAN COLLEGE PIONEER

Walking into the Survivor-themed greek party, Sigma Chi juniors Brice Crayne and Bryan Ponti could never have imagined the kind of reaction their costumes would ultimately get. They said later that they just wanted to stand out: and with their faces and bodies painted entirely black with orange markings, they certainly did. It didn’t strike them that their body paint would eventually move the entire campus to a standstill.

Senior Natalie Knott was browsing the Internet in the library when she came across photographs of Crayne and Ponti from the party. Feeling a gut reaction, Knott showed the pictures to a few friends who didn’t see much controversy.

“I had to leave the library because I was really angry but I couldn’t figure out why because nobody was seeing what I saw,” Knott said. She drew connections to racist archetypes, specifically the blackface minstrel shows popular in the early 1900s. After speaking for hours about the issue with friends in her apartment complex, Knott decided she should bring her concerns to a faculty member.

The next day, Knott consulted with Politics Professor Bruce Magnusson, who told her that she should show the photographs to the dean. After conferencing with student life committee chair Clare Carson for an hour, Knott decided to post her thoughts to the student listserv, at Carson’s suggestion.

The response was immediate. Feedback poured in over the listserv from minority students who felt offended, white students who felt attacked and a slew of others whose feelings fell somewhere in the middle.

A day later, the story carried over to the faculty, and Crayne and Ponti were called into President George Bridges’ office to talk about the incident. Several professors stopped their classes to discuss race issues that many students and faculty alike felt had been unaddressed for too long on campus. Jean Carwile Masteller, an English professor on the steering committee of Whitman’s new race and ethnic studies major wrote in an e-mail, “We do have a ‘teachable moment’ and we realize that.”

Early reactions

The responses that resulted from Knott’s initial e-mail ranged from passively curious to incensed. At first, the bulk of responses were from those who felt insulted by Knott’s assertions.

“I think the majority of the student body that I have encountered has been defensive and angry, and there are those who have been really unable to be self-reflective,” said Knott, “Right now the tendency seems to be for people to say, ‘Oh, we’ve had enough. It’s done, it’s over, let’s just get over it,’ and I think that’s the wrong attitude to have.”

Whitman’s Sigma Chi president senior James Hovard was one of the first people that took issue with Knott’s e-mail. Hovard heard about the e-mail from a friend, and he produced a reply that same night.

“I was a little shocked and surprised because I was at that party and the thought of Brice and Byan dressing up in blackface never crossed my mind. I know that they wore black paint, but I never thought of it as a racial issue,” Hovard said. His main complaint, though, was that Knott did not talk directly to Crayne or Ponti personally before sending out the listserv e-mail. “I felt like they were being called racists. That wasn’t her intent,—she was trying to say that their actions were racist, not that they were racist—but I felt that they were being portrayed as racists … and I felt like that was unfair,” Hovard said.

Neither Crayne nor Ponti responded to the listserv e-mail, but both were personally affected by the incident.

“I had to set up a punching bag in my room I was so mad,” said Crayne: “I felt like someone had passed judgment on me; someone had called me something I definitely am not, and that’s a racist.”

Ponti felt similarly attacked. “The individual who pointed out everything that was wrong with the pictures did not contact either me or my good friend as to our intentions, they simply wrote their e-mail in the heat of the moment and we were caught completely off guard,” he said.

To Knott and many others, though, it was not a personal issue.

“It’s not about me. It’s about this problem. We have as a society an inability to openly and honestly talk about race,” said Knott.

Senior Paul DiRado, who actively participated in the listserv debate shared Knott’s view. “The point isn’t what anyone intended to do, it’s what happened. Historically, the use of face painting has been a way of oppressing African-Americans. The issue is that the recreation of that is inherently, at the very least, thoughtless. It is the thoughtlessness that is the real problem,” he said.

A campus divided?

After days of listserv debates, meetings, and conversations in and out of classes, some began to fear that the issue was effectively splitting the campus in half.

Senior Clark Blumenstein stepped into the listserv debate over his concern that some students refused to budge in their opinions. “People don’t entertain the other side whatsoever. They kind of do a five-paragraph, single-thesis essay…. I just see it as a very destructive thing. People should be pushing for a mutual understanding or a friendship out of an argument,” said Blumenstein.

Hovard agrees. “I think tempers flared and people just sort of started beating up on each other. I mean, to this day, no one has come up to Bryan and Brice specifically to have a discussion with them,” he said.

Many cite the method of debate—e-mail listserv—as a source of much of the divisiveness.

“If listserv debates continue to be the only mode of communicating, these problems will only get worse and overshadow the fact that we all want a more unified and respectful campus to come from this,” said sophomore Morgan Bach in an e-mail. She argued that the passive nature of listserv e-mails allows people to be more vicious than they might be in person, and no actual confrontation or change can take place.

Although the incident may have initially divided students, history professor and director of race and ethnic studies department Nina Lerman hopes that it will actually bring the Whitman community closer together: “I think that on the whole, Whitman students are really interested in creating a community that is a single Whitman community,” said Lerman, who has been impressed not only by efforts made by intercultural groups but also those made by student organizations such as the IHC and ASWC to address the issue. “I actually feel optimistic that it’s not a long-term division,” she said.

History lessons

Knott claimed that Crayne and Ponti adorned what was essentially “blackface” make-up, which has started a controversy all its own. The partygoers’ inattentiveness to possible racial undertones sparked a question of whether the majority of Whitman students really know the history of race relations in America at all.

Blackface surfaced in America in 1789 when a white comedic actor brought it to some prominence by portraying a drunken black man while wearing shoe polish on his face. Its popularity was significantly heightened in 1828 with the birth of the song “Jump Jim Crow” and accompanying dance, which became a prevalent addition to minstrel shows of the time. The blackface actor typically portrayed a lazy, nervous, sexually-perverted black character. They almost exclusively adopted one of the many stereotypes that were heavily perpetuated at the time: the submissive “Tom,” the bafoonish “Coon,” the brassy and fat “Mammy” or the nefarious “Black Brute,” among others. Blackface and minstrel shows were popular until at least the 1950s when they began to fade with the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement.

“To be honest, before this party, I didn’t know the history of blackface. I knew it happened, but I didn’t know much of the context, so I didn’t see how offensive it could be,” said Hovard. He wasn’t alone: Many listserv e-mails began to include Web sites with extensive history of blackface and other racial archetypes in the United States.

Lerman sees the problem running even deeper. “It’s been labeled blackface … but it actually seems to be more about a jungle, savage, primitive stereotype.” Although this issue is just as race-based, Lerman said, it is not the same. “It’s clear that there’s a large portion of the student body that really doesn’t have a good sense of history,” she said.

Looking forward

For the past week, faculty have been meeting exhaustively to discuss what steps should be taken next. In conjunction with campus student leaders, professors and administrators brainstormed possible programs that might benefit the campus and give the incident a positive outcome.

“The whole blackface incident exposed larger issues that are often unaddressed on campus in day-to-day interactions,” said senior Thomas Miller, who has attended faculty-student meetings. “I’m hoping that we can create programs that can facilitate truly meaningful discussions that can reach a significant portion of the campus so that we can actually start beginning to question general assumptions that people are living their everyday lives by,” said Miller. “It’s not really going to happen overnight, but this is the beginning.”

Lerman also sees the incident as a possibility. “I’m really glad that there is a cause for conversation and that we have a chance to really work on our ongoing programming and not just a one-time thing. I think something like a teach-in is great for starters, but it’s not the end of the story,” said Lerman.

Though the opportunity has unquestionably presented itself, some still feel the administration has handled the issue poorly.

“One of the goals as administrators in this type of situation is to remain objective and look out for the interest of students on both sides of the incident. This was the not the case at all,” said Ponti. Although Ponti was grateful for support from his professors, he felt victimized by way the administration initially dealt with the situation. “I welcome anybody and everybody who would like to talk to me about this because I would much rather talk to you than have you think I am racist or ignorant,” he said.

Knott just hopes the conversation continues. “We’re supposed to be asking questions. It’s safe here. How are we supposed to uphold democratic traditions if we can’t uphold discussions at school?” she said.

President Bridges alongside faculty has planned a three-part program to deal with race issues at Whitman. On Sunday, Oct. 28, there will be a town hall meeting from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. in Cordiner Hall for community members to discuss their feelings, ideas and questions about the blackface incident and its underlying implications about race on campus. On Thursday, Nov. 9, a campus-wide symposium held by community leaders and faculty will take place from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. The symposium will explore the history of blackface and minstrelsy, race and ethnic implications in educational institutions, and the American history of racism, said Bridges. Finally, Bridges will be meeting with a working group of students and faculty throughout the year to discuss upcoming speakers, films and events that will speak to these issues.

“The students were unanimous (and passionate) in their desire to participate in the solutions and in working with faculty and staff in creating events and activities that Whitman will sponsor for the rest of the academic year,” said Bridges in an e-mail.

Although there was initially no apology from Crayne or Ponti, each has since issued a separate apology toward anyone who was offended by their costumes.

Ponti, like many, sees this as a window of opportunity. “Although the campus is taking action to create a better understanding on campus, it is up to each one of us to individually make a difference. If we all can come together and make a collective effort toward this goal of racial and cultural awareness, I think we will see a much brighter and happier future at this college,” he said.
Crayne, who admitted that he has suffered from intense sadness and anger since the incident, said quite simply, “I just wanted to say that if I offended anybody with my actions that night, I am truly sorry.”

QUESTIONS?

Both Brice & Brian requested that their phone numbers be included.

Brice Crayne: 360-430-2201
Bryan Ponti: 509-301-6625

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74 Comments

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74 responses to “‘Blackface’ incident ignites campus

  1. Liz Smith Currie

    The news of this incident has hit the press–the Oregonian ran a story today. As a Whitman alumn I am suprised that the men who went to the party were unaware of the history of black face–doesn’t Whitman admit students who have studied history? This is, I believe, common knowledge to most 8th graders studying US History.

    I hope those who think this is blown out of proportion understand how this looks to those of us outside of the Whitman bubble. Whitman was right to cancel classes and address the problem head on. This will do damage to an institution which has worked hard to build its reputation as one of the finest in the country. The mistake may have been made out of youthful ignorance, but repairing it takes clear, thoughtful efforts on the part of the entire Whitman community.

  2. Gene Steffanson

    I cannot help but wonder why I didn’t hear a similar outcry a couple of years ago when Whitman College paid a troupe to come to the campus and ridicule the Pilgrims in whiteface.

  3. Leroy Cunningham

    It is a sad thing that these two young people adorned Blackface. The question I have as an African American Male is why? Did they think it would be funny? You know, life of the party type thing. Or were they just insensitive. The controversy that erupted on the campus is understandable. Too many White American have no conscious clue as to the impact their actions can and do have on a people in matters of race, or the depth of the pain that can result from such actions. I have been the subject of discrimination and racism for 53 years and have come to realize that the problem is not in the individual it’s in or society and two fold: First, the national media has done an excellent job of portraying African Americans, particularly males, as dangerous, violent and under-educated people. Second, most white people don’t understand the depth of the subconscious racism that prevails in this nation. You have got to “feel” it, you have to feel threatened by it, and you have to live it before one can truly understand what it is. Perhaps Brice and Bryan should recreate the experiment undertaken taken on by John Howard Griffin in 1964, where he checked into a room in the south as a white man, shaved his hair, chemically altered his skin tone to look black, and reemerged as a black man. It did not take him long to get it. Then and only then will they be able to feel the sadness, the anger, and the outrage African Americans experience daily in our society. Let’s face it. Whitman is a liberal arts college, but also a college for the elite, many who do not have close relationships with African Americans. One only has to ask the questions how many African American or other minority friend’s do I have? And, do I really know who they are or understand their life experiences? It is not an external experience. One can empathize, but empathy and understanding are at opposite ends of the spectrum. I don’t blame either Brice or Bryan for their lack of understanding of how offensive Blackface is to most African Americans. I do however blame our society for our inability to get past the white guilt and fear, and the African American general distrust of white people that is associated with discussion about race. I can honestly say that I tend to know more about the white race than the most white people know about the black race only because I chose to leave the black world in 1970 and step into the predominantly white world. I chose to expose myself to the possibility of increased discrimination because I wanted to understand and find my own truth. I could have just as easily remained in my community where I felt safe. My lover of 15 years is white, and although he was conscience of the rift between the races, his told me that he gained a deeper understanding of the difficulties of being an African American only because I could point out the subtle nature of racism. In short he got to experience it with me. The actions of Bryan and Brice simply opened the Pandora’s box of racism that we all live in fear of looking into. It won’t change as long as people fail to objectively seek the truths most minorities experience in America. And for those who say just get over it. I say, I can’t. I can’t remove the blackness of my skin. I can’t hide. I can’t run. So I deal with it, as we all should. I applaud the President, Staff and Students of Whitman for meeting this matter head-on. Doing so is far better than placing ones head in the sand of denial and hoping it will all blow over. Until the leadership of this nation supports and sponsors national dialogue about race relations for the sake of future generations local discussion at the local level is most important. Good luck Whitman,

    Leroy Cunningham
    Waitsburg, WA

  4. Matt

    I believe MOST Americans are actually so fearful of being labeled as a racist that they go out of their way to avoid the issue all together. When a professional football player can come out and say he is playing better because the head coach is black and not white…when certain African-American comedians make their entire living on poking fun at white Americans….when an entire television network is called Black Entertainment Television and is blatantly racist…and yet the public outcry against these highly offensive and racist examples is null…..is there a double-standard? I do see a double-standard, but I am afraid to point it out because I then would be a racist…right? Because I am offended that the Supreme Court of the United States can rule for the University of Michigan Medical School in a case where UM purposely gives more points to African-American and Latino-American applicants…I must be a racist….when in fact I am simply against judging someone based on the color of their skin or the race they can claim ancestry to. God forbid for me to point out Whitman also tailors it’s application process to favor acceptance of minority applicants. Shame on me for being able to provide direct examples of such. I think the issue goes well beyond two students dressing in blackface when they in fact did not intend to offend anyone or make a statement regarding race. It is very easy to ignore your own transgressions when you are pointing the finger at someone else’s. Moreover, I honestly believe the issue of race touches Hispanic-Americans in the Pacific Northwest more than it does African-Americans. Yet once again those obvious issues are ignored while two college students dressed in blackface (not for racial purposes I remind you) are nearly ostracized.

  5. Gregory Harper

    Bravo to Whitman for trying to deal with the subject. Most schools will not address racial issues. While Whitman and the two young men may not be guilty of racism; Whitman, the educational system and their parents have failed as evidenced by their ignorance of the impact of “blackface”. A truism is Black people know all about White people. White people know little of Black people.

  6. Gail Woods

    In researching this event and other similar events that happen at some of our most prominent colleges, I was overwhelmed that this issue is so prevalent. It appears that racial issues are increasing and this country is moving backwards. I was impressed with the way the Whitman College faculty, administrators and students came together and recognized that in order to resolve these kind of issues, they must first be confronted. Yes, it was wrong of the two young men to dorn the ‘black faces’. Did their actions stem from ignorance or intent? Only they truly know. But I commend their actions to step up to the plate and become involved in resolving the problem, rather than further igniting it, as I have discovered in some cases. It is not always easy to admit your wrong and at the same time become a part of the good that stems from it. The Whitman community rose to the challenge, confronted the issue head-on and brought about a change that will have a lasting effect on everyone. It will take this type of initiative to bring about the much needed change in our country. Hatred is a festering wound that can only be healed by imputing knowledge, encouraging communication, and understanding and accepting differences. Change comes from actions that take place, but also from the good that comes as a result of it. Racism can only survive thru ignorance and hatred. Racism cannot survive where it is not allowed to exist. I commend Whitman College and its community for taking the stand to bring about changing the way people think and see each other; for bringing together what could have caused separation; but above all for being the leader and showing the way. I encourage those who took an active role in this display of leadership, to continue in the commitment to bring about change.

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