It came on my radar via my “black friend”* Elie Mystal.
Don’t wear blackface. Ever. IT IS NEVER OKAY. Why is it so hard for people to follow this simple rule? Who are these intellectual moths who find themselves drawn to the flame of wearing blackface?
The initial reports were bizarre. Given the way of life on campus, the idea that a law professor would consider that wearing blackface wasn’t going to create a shitstorm of monumental proportions was incomprehensible. Why would anybody even consider it?
Let’s say you wear it and you get away with it. Let’s say that it doesn’t offend people and it doesn’t end up on the internet and it doesn’t put your career at risk. WHAT HAVE YOU WON? Is there a secret billionaire who runs around giving out PRIZES to white people who wear blackface? WHAT POSSIBLE UPSIDE IS THERE IN THIS? What creatively bankrupt costume are you wearing where you need the blackface to really pull it off?
As it turned out, there was method to the madness.
A fellow UO professor, who declined to be identified, said the offending professor meant her costume to depict “Black Man in a White Coat: A Doctor’s Reflections on Race and Medicine,” a recent autobiography by Dr. Damon Tweedy that recounts the racism he encountered in medical school.
Witnesses, who included students and faculty, said she was showing partygoers Tweedy’s book.
The motive wasn’t malevolent or frivolous, even if controversial. There was a point to be made, and the point was in furtherance of eliminating racism. Does that change anything? A letter from 23 academics was scathing.
It doesn’t matter what your intentions were. It doesn’t matter if it was protected by the First Amendment.
Blackface is patently offensive. It is overtly racist. It is wildly inappropriate. It reflects a profound lack of judgment. There is no excuse.
The academics saw a line that could not be crossed, no matter what the reason, what the motive. It’s reminiscent of University of Kansas prof Andrea Quenette, who, in describing her own racial bias, used the n-word, for which she was sent packing. No matter what the circumstances, what the purpose, even if in the cause of ending racism, the word cannot be used.
Quenette was out, and the 23 profs who signed the letter demanded this law prof’s resignation. This brought disgrace on academia, they argued, and deserved the death penalty. Nothing less would suffice.
Sure, training is good and all, but… we really need workshops to explain that BLACKFACE IS A BAD IDEA? It’s like going to a parenting seminar to hear “strategies” for keeping your kid from locking himself in the oven. “I hear what you are saying, but my kid doesn’t do that because… HE IS NOT A DROOLING LEMUR WITH A HEROIN PROBLEM!”
Are there really Oregon LAW professors who need MORE DIALOGUE on this issue?
Is the line that bright? Does context, purpose, motivation matter? Is the offense, in itself, one for which there is no leeway, no latitude, no excuse? Eugene Volokh challenged the orthodoxy.
There’s nothing inherently racist about using dress or makeup to pretend to be black, or white, or Hasidic, or what have you. Indeed, if someone wore blackface and imitated an accent in a way that mocked blacks, she could be faulted for mocking blacks (just as somehow dressing up as an Orthodox Jew to mock Orthodox Jews could be faulted for that). But the notion that making oneself up to look black is just somehow per se racist strikes me as very hard to defend, whether one is trying to play President Obama (or, for that matter, Othello) or the title character in a black doctor’s memoir (“Black Man in a White Coat,” which is apparently what the professor was dressing as) or Michael Jackson.
The distinction he draws is one worth considering, no matter how quickly one rushes to the conclusion. If used to mock, to ridicule, based upon race, then it is not only facially offensive, but intended to be offensive. But is it racist to dress up as President Obama or Othello? Should it be?
There’s no doubt that humor, whether through overt comedy or joking around in costume, is influenced by social conventions and is a matter of taste and judgment. Changing attitudes may well influence people’s choices; some amount of such social response is inevitable, and perfectly proper.
Social convention plays a role in perception. Eugene uses the example of Che Guevara, who was a despicable figure, but one that is inexplicably socially acceptable these days, making wearing Che shirts acceptable. Hitler shirts, not so much. People attuned to social justice will wax poetic on the difference, but the real explanation is nothing more than current fashion trends.
That said, it seems beyond question that the current fashion trend is that you don’t wear blackface, no matter what the reason. Got a really sound, very controversial idea about wearing blackface for the best of social justice reasons ever? So what. Don’t do it. Not because your use of it to make a point may not be valid, but because you will not win, regardless of your motivations. Unlike a sentence after a conviction for murder, there will be no weighing of aggravating and mitigating factors. You will be executed.
But this sort of social give-and-take is nothing like the demands for ending people’s professional careers, or attempts to use government power to restrict speech. (For a case involving the First Amendment and student blackface, although in a situation that did seem like mockery of blacks, see Iota Xi v. George Mason Univ. (4th Cir. 1993).) We have reached a bad and dangerous place in American life, and in American university life in particular.
It may well be that anyone who thinks wearing blackface isn’t the worst idea ever has lost touch with reality, for better or worse. But the reaction, the bright line that considers nothing beyond the fact that it happened and demands the death penalty, is social convention**, as decided by drooling lemurs with a heroin problem (to borrow a phrase). This isn’t to say it shouldn’t be, but that the rule is absolute and tolerates neither thought nor argument.
It’s not that Eugene’s position isn’t rational and moderate, even if debatable, but that there’s no talking to the angry mob of “intellectuals” with their tweed jackets and pitchforks.
*One of the weird yet unpleasant situations Elie finds himself in is being that “black friend” to a lot of white lawyers like me. It’s a natural outgrowth of his circumstances; he writes publicly creating at minimum the appearance of knowing him, plus he’s black, which informs his writing. To complicate matters, we’re friends in real life, though I think his wife merely tolerates me. The point is that he has to think about being the “black friend” that whites refer to, the safe, accessible black guy whom white guys can talk to and about. Think about it. Elie has made me think about it quite a bit.
**Social conventions dictate much of what we do yet take for granted, such as men removing their hats indoors, though women need not. Sexist? Sure. Is there some deep reason for it? Not really. Yet, that’s the social convention. And don’t even think about wearing your hat in a courtroom, guys. It won’t turn out well.