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Uncovering Racism: White Greeks in Blackface

Dr. Ibram H. RogersDr. Ibram H. Rogers

I must join the recent outrage over White Greek fraternities and sororities (and an Asian fraternity recently) donning blackface and performing blackness on our college campuses. Sights of White Greeks in blackface usually at parties have sparked Black student activism around the nation. It is mobilizing students to demand racial change, to demand a better higher education.

These days, the Black Student Union (BSU) at the University of California-Irvine is on fire over this issue and other acts of disrespect.

A week ago, the UC Irvine BSU circulated a statement condemning racism on their campus. The BSU reported that, in 2012, Pi Beta Phi “felt it appropriate to give a ‘Once you go Black, you never go back’ award. This year, Alpha Phi and Phi Psi felt it appropriate to decorate a fraternity paddle with the words ‘slave driver’ and ‘little slave’ on it. This week, Lambda Theta Delta felt it appropriate to use Blackface in multiple promotion videos.”

It appears the donning of blackface by Lambda Theta Delta, an Asian American fraternity, was the last straw. The fraternity later apologized on Facebook, using the bad apples theory. One UC Irvine vice chancellor called the video “insensitive.” The Asian Pacific Student Association at UC Irvine censured the video as “deeply offensive” and “racist” on Facebook.

UC Irvine BSU members went further. “Although it is easy to cite Greek organizations as perpetrators of racism, this is not a Greek issue,” they wrote. “This is more than that. It is also more than an individual issue. This is a UC system-wide issue, and ultimately, a world-wide issue. AntiBlackness and racism is reproduced within each UC campus, whether in the form of nooses at UC San Diego or Ku Klux Klan hoods in UC Davis.”

“What all of these actions have in common is a lack of respect, a lack of accountability, and a disregard of particular students’ well being on campus,” they added. “We, the Black Student Union, will no longer stand for this.”

Reports on White fraternities and sororities and White students more generally donning blackface have surfaced in recent years at North Dakota State, East Tennessee State, Northwest Missouri State, Clemson University, Tarleton State University, to name a few of the many.

Students know the donning of blackface is racist. It is one of the indelible images of American racism, like the noose, the N-word, the whites-only sign, the white KKK sheet. But I am not quite sure students—activists or the Greek offenders—know how and why this 21st century collegiate form of blackface is racist.

To the Greek offenders, it appears they consider blackness, Hip Hop to be cool. And that is why they regularly defend their actions as not offensive. They have an appreciation for blackness and Hip Hop, they say. They are not racist, which to them is defined as one who hates Black people.

I believe the Greek offenders when they say they are not racist—meaning they do not hate Black people. But when we accurately define racism as regarding Black as inferior, they appear very racist.

Why is blackness, Hip Hop cool to these White Greeks? It is cool because it is rebellious, different, wild, exotic, exciting, amusing. It is not plain. It is not normal. It is not whiteness, all of which says how they compare whiteface or whiteness to blackface or blackness.

What is the importance of the blackface? It makes it really real. They are no longer just listening to blackness or Hip Hop. Putting on the uniform, they become blackness. The blackface makes the White Greeks really rebellious, different, wild, exotic, exciting, amusing, cool. They are literally able to leave their pale, plain, normal whiteness behind for a moment. Blackface is a masking of normality, a literally coloring of the clean slate.

Why is that racism? Racism, at its ideological core, is the normalization of whiteness, white people, white ideas or, in this case, whiteface. To racists, blackface, blackness, African-American culture, African-Americans are abnormal, different, wild, exotic, amusing, and inferior.

Dr. Ibram H. Rogers is an assistant professor of Africana studies at University at Albany — SUNY. He is the author of The Black Campus Movement: Black Students and the Racial Reconstitution of Higher Education, 1965-1972. Follow on Twitter at @DrIbram

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