Comfort, not intolerance, is the issue.
Prairie View A&M University is highly unlikely to suspend freshman soccer player Brooke Merino for posting a blackface selfie on Snapchat last week, but the real problem will not be Merino getting a second chance from the school or the Texas A&M system.
It is not the debate students and alumni are having about how the school is handling the case, or schools dealing with blackface and other incidents of racial insensitivity at any level.
It is the notion that some white people, even if a very small percentage of them, are comfortable enough to put racial humor online, ignorant of the fire they are certain to start with the content or fueled by its potential to rage. And when we, black people, balance that truth against the small percentage of us losing our lives to atrocities like police lynching, knowing the spectrum of consequences tips against us is scarier than Donald Trump, Wells Fargo and your local police department put together.
What happened to the guys from Sigma Alpha Epsilon in Oklahoma? What happened to Paige Shoemaker at the University of Kansas? What’s going on with those fraternities at the University of Florida, Auburn University? Wherever they are, are they uncomfortable?
This is an important question, because even if they all were expelled, (which they weren’t) it could be argued that we should be able to have instant recall of their names as symbols of America’s persistent and constant racial threat against black people.
Instead, we get a website called killedbypolice.net
That disparity alone goes beyond the unevenness in America’s racial ecosystem. White aggression gets spotlighted and relocated, usually to a more sustainable environment. Black aggression, or even the lack thereof, gets spotlighted for being eliminated or cataloged within the criminal justice system, among the millions of our missing.
Theirs is a beautiful purgatory that still allows for a middle class life, a chance for redemption. Ours is death; physical or metaphysical. Are blackface and selling cigarettes the same kind of infraction? It is truly two different offenses within two different contexts. But so is the judgement and the execution.
*Comfort is the Context
Blackface at an historically black college is a new one, but on college campuses, finding the history of white folks poking fun at colored skin is about as accessible as a Google search will allow your spirit to withstand.
For some black folks, blackface at a college campus deserves removal from campus as a violation of hate speech prohibitions. For some white folks, trying to get into a bar with a fake ID deserves a mouth full of concrete.
The question is a dual take on who deserves comfort and who makes the case for disrupting it. Merino put black tape on her face to get attention online, and she earned national headlines for being a fool in a Rachel Dolezal kind of way.
Martese Johnson tried to get into a bar and got his head busted open for being black at UVA.
Merino will be forgotten in Prairie View in less than three years or less and no one will ask her to recount her lowest moment in life.
Johnson will live forever in Charlottesville thanks to YouTube and answering the call to write an editorial for Vanity Fair on the experience of having his face driven into a sidewalk and the parallels that, for him, helped him to understand what it was like to be a slave.
And a lot of people cannot understand what that feels like, or even what a micro-aggression feels like; a moment in time that can instantly transfer black folks back in time 400 years, to an intense feeling of other-ness, being an outsider, an intruder, or being in emotional and legal captivity.
The Danger of the Invisible Blackface
And then there are times where we have to deal with the microaggressions that are carefully constructed as black advocacy. The aforementioned Rachel Dolezal was an extreme version of this, who thought that by living in proximity to blackness, she could better work and advocate on behalf of black issues and internalized negative experiences.
That didn’t go over so well, but what consistently does go over well are the attempts at empowering black folks that are designed by white supporters who cannot effectively see that their DNA and their time with black people are not good enough tools to scrub the blackface off which they can’t help but paint on in their effort to even the score for black folks.
Consider the recent Gallup poll which overtly labeled HBCU students as being in favor of violating the first amendment of the Constitution. They intended to show that the media has a long way to go in providing more balanced coverage of black and HBCU issues, but blackface wouldn’t allow them to phrase the question to more specifically match their intent.
Or consider the recent offering by HBCU advocate and trustee Marybeth Gasman, who chided predominantly white institutions for not aggressively pursuing diversity within their faculty ranks. From the Hechinger Report:
For those reading this essay, you might be wondering why faculty diversity is important. Your wondering is yet another reason why we don’t have a more diverse faculty. Having a diverse faculty — in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion — adds greatly to the experiences of students in the classroom. It challenges them — given that they are likely not to have had diversity in their K-12 classroom teachers — to think differently about who produces knowledge. It also challenges them to move away from a ‘white-centered’ approach to one that is inclusive of many different voices and perspectives.
Gasman, a University of Pennsylvania professor of education and director of the school’s center on minority-serving institutions, has published extensively on HBCU issues of philanthropy and leadership, and has been a paid consultant at dozens of HBCUs. She did not mention HBCUs as a specific professional pipeline for teaching talent, which some folks will tell you command 96 percent of the nation’s black faculty, while others say the number is closer to 22 percent.
Of course, racial diversity for PWIs comprised of Hispanic, Asian/Asian American, African American and those persons identifying as two or more races. At UPenn, a 2013 faculty diversity report reveals that racial minorities account for about nine percent of the institution’s total faculty profile, but African Americans make up about three percent.
In the School of Education, four black faculty members were accounted for out of 34 total full, associate and assistant professors. African Americans make up 12 percent of the total minority student enrollment on campus, and six percent of the student population at large.
Gasman says that diversity benefits all because it takes all learners out of a *comfort zone of ‘white-centered’ approach. But the real advocacy is to import diversity as a controllable element of university culture, so that at any point, “diverse” faculty members are the ones to export back to our communities, or if on campus, to “safe spaces.”
Reason would demand that Gasman’s bold stance against white faculty, in connection to her advocacy for black schools, would’ve yielded the call for more resources and more attention to be paid to HBCUs. Seemingly, as one who serves as a trustee for one of the nation’s most progressive black colleges would’ve taken the allowed national space to write about white faculty being bold in going in to black colleges as professors and researchers, and helping to build the capacity of institutions, rather than building diversity at institutions with historic advantages in political, social and economic growth.
But isn’t that what blackface is designed to do? To give the bad white folks the appearance of blackness for cruel humor, and the good ones the free pass to commodify blackness as an asset of white guilt?
White folks in unintended blackface believe in a world where diversity will one day exist without racial escape hatches. Black folks with actual black faces know that, even despite Dr. King’s best intentions, no such place will ever exist.