It feels like an abusive relationship, sometimes. First, the offense takes place. Then, the gaslighting commences.
The intestinal fortitude it takes to stand one’s moral ground in the face of offensive racial aggressions and historical revisions is energy that could simply be spent living our best lives.
The problem is, ignoring racism isn’t safe if you’re black in America. Your “best life” can be curtailed by bigotry if you’re not careful.
This is the position the black students are now in at Colorado State University, thanks to their president, Joyce McConnell. After choosing not to punish four white students who posted a blackface photo, she cited the student’s First Amendment rights as a reason to spare them any administrative consequence.
In the photo, the white students could appear to be innocently wearing black charcoal masks. The “Wakanda Forever” salute makes their intentions nefariously clear.
One of the students, Leana Kaplan, has been identified and has since apologized. The other students’ identities have not been made public at the time of writing this. Kaplan’s apology appears to be enough for president McConnell. In a public statement, she writes: “This recent post runs counter to our principles of community, but it does not violate any CSU rule or regulation, and the First Amendment prohibits the university from taking any punitive action against those in the photo.”
CSU lost out on this teachable moment, and the irony is costly. There are so many things that could have been taught here. First among them is history, a subject America as a whole struggles with.
Why is blackface so offensive? Who was Al Jolson? What is so dangerous about Mammy and Sambo imagery, and why is it relevant now? What was happening in America while minstrels were all the rage? What were the consequences of “Birth of a Nation?” Why is it a different thing when the Wayans Brothers or Dave Chappelle dress like white people? The short answer to why these questions matter can be summed up in one word: “Context!”
Context is why in relationships, a partner’s past actions matter. It’s how we can recognize patterns that predict the future. The gaslighting often seeks to obscure the pattern recognition in the abused partner.
Joyce McConnel calling the racist photo a “First Amendment” right for the white students then tempts black students to think the offense is all in their heads. It’s not.
Telling them they’re being overly sensitive denies the racial context that black Americans must consider every day of their lives. It frames our racial survival sense as running counter to the constitution, and thus, un-American.
But, here’s the reality. CSU’s administration is playing with fire. That fire is called “denial.” The same denial that failed to stop the Columbine gunmen when the evidence was clear they were gearing up for the attack.
Newsflash, folks: Hate crimes are on the rise, according to every metric that measures the phenomenon. Southern Poverty Law Center and the FBI track the increase in violent racialized attacks. From Charleston, to Charlottesville, to last month’s Walmart massacre in El Paso, the evidence is clear.
Mass shooters overwhelmingly favor the white supremacist ideology that placates racist tropes like blackface. If one of these young men in blackface turns out to be mass shooter, will CSU have wished they acted to correct their behavior? Would that be humiliating enough to do something about it?
African American students have enough on their plate. Worrying if their administrators (who are paid by their tuition and tax dollars) are tacitly permitting white supremacy should not be one of them.
What message does this send to white students who might be calculating the ramifications from acting out of their racial ignorance? How should black students at CSU, who are outnumbered one to 54 at CSU, interpret their white peers’ behavior?
I mean, it’s only a little white supremacy, right? Only the same force that kidnapped and enslaved their ancestors, terrorized them for 100 years after emancipation, mass-incarcerates their peers, shamelessly appropriates their culture, and shoots up innocent people in public places.
Gee, what do they have to worry about?
Or, perhaps it is the administration of CSU who should be worried. A lawsuit for this kind of indifference to blackface is currently in process in Minnesota. Black students from Eastern Carver County Schools are suing the district for “Deliberate Indifference” and failure to take “Any meaningful action.”
Should the African American students follow suit, or should they take meaningful action now, before the losses and humiliation mount up?
Either way, one thing is clear. A racial Pandora’s box has been opened. The only question is whether the administration at CSU will reconsider their stance on the issue of blackface and get on the right side of history.
Theo Wilson is a poet, speaker, activist and CNN contributor. Learn more about him at TheoWilson.net.
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