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Safe space not blackface


It’s that special time of year: trick-or-treating, pumpkin carving, and overtly racist costumes. Costumes are acts of creative expression that often come with baggage. Are these the manifest skeletons in the closet of our collective psyche?

Photographs of SSMU’s 4Floors Halloween event, published by the Bull and Bear on Facebook last Saturday, showed at least one attendee dressed in blackface. The practice of darkening one’s face, as done predominantly by whites for the purposes of comedy, has a loaded racist history. Blackface was a form of theatrical makeup popularly used by minstrel performers in 19th century America to popularize cruel stereotypes of black people. In addition to blackening their faces, performers exaggerated their lips and wore wooly wigs. This form of demeaning entertainment – of overlooking individuality and pigeonholing black people as lazy, childish, and foolish – was deemed unacceptable long ago. With the exception of some black artists who have re-appropriated blackface, this practice is unacceptable in the mainstream due to its overt racism. Apparently, Halloween is seen as an exception: a time when mindlessly offensive practices need not be questioned.

4Floors was not the only recent instance or example of a costume entrenched in racism. In September 2011, students at the Université de Montréal’s (UdeM) business school, Hautes études commerciales (HEC), dressed in blackface as part of costumes characterizing Jamaican sprinters for Frosh festivities. McGill law student and witness to these festivities, Anthony Morgan, stated to the press that he had considered filing a human rights complaint. The university said they did not tolerate racism, but did not see racist intent behind blackface. The failure of theoretically trusted institutions to condemn such acts serves to empower the already-privileged and further marginalize the minority. The problem lies not in these individual instances, but rather in the fact that our peers en masse do not see the underlying racism in such behaviour.

Just as UdeM could have done more to regulate and prohibit this racism, SSMU could and should have regulated their Halloween party. SSMU aims to create a safe space in our community: a space that is open, accepting, and intolerant of discriminatory behaviour, and where all individuals are supposed to be treated with “human dignity and without discrimination,” according to the Equity Policy. Yet SSMU did not regulate the costumes at 4Floors that threatened the safe space. A Bull and Bear press release stated that the SSMU executives were unaware of the explicitly racist costumes. It is their responsibility, however, to call out such discrimination and ensure that safe space is respected – and this absolutely necessitates banning blackface and other racist caricatures such as the various indigenous costumes and ethnic stereotypes that were also present at 4Floors.

With students donning such explicitly offensive garb, it is clear that our university education has failed at teaching basic critical thinking skills when it comes to recognizing racist behaviours. McGill University, self-proclaimed as “an internationally respected institution for higher learning,” perpetuates racism through its eurocentric curriculum, which holds white history and culture as standard and everything non-white as the “other.” Charmaine Nelson, a professor of art history at McGill whose research interests include racial politics, said in an interview with the Montreal Gazette in March 2011 that “the underrepresentation of blacks in these positions (as professors, teachers, and upper administration) and [their] mistreatment within educational institutions, needs to be urgently addressed on a national scale.” Canada has branded itself as an all-inclusive society. The implicit erasure of Canada’s history of segregation and racism discourages racial discourse, and further silences it through the belief that Canada is a post-racial society. This only holds true if a “post-racial society” means a white normative society which is willfully blind to the racism still endemic within it.

As Nelson professes, “we are socialized into a racist society.” If the current framework will not teach us how to question our racial portrayals, we as students need a heightened sensitivity to the choices we make and the ways our socialization affects our behaviour. Sometimes it is about what you wear more so than how you wear it.