The first time I saw a friend wearing blackface I was a freshman in college. I was stunned. I was hurt. I was enraged. But more than anything, I was confused. He thought it was funny, albeit controversial. But to me it wasn’t a joke; it was pointed mockery. I imagined him laughing and joking as his friends painted his skin. I couldn’t understand why he would so callously and easily disrespect me and those like me, for fun.
Now I have come to expect such acts, and the conversations that surround them, as routine displays of disrespect and cultural cluelessness.
The events at Yale over the past weeks have provoked a great deal of conversation, but little effort to understand or acknowledge the cultural and institutional biases at play. In their responses, many have made the same mistake that my friend did, assuming that individual actions can be divorced from their broader context, or from the larger and more troubling legacy of racial discrimination in America. But they can’t.
When Yale’s Intercultural Affairs Committee sent around an email suggesting that students, “Take the time to consider their costumes and the impact it may have,” it was asking students to be thoughtful about the choices they made, to think before acting, and to ask themselves whether what they saw as a fun or funny joke might make others feel hurt, offended, or even threatened. For students who already feel excluded at Yale, as at similar schools, the email from the Intercultural Affairs Committee likely felt like a small, but likely appreciated acknowledgement that everyone should feel safe and included on campus.