Costumes Stir Racial Tension

Angie Leventis, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 4, 2007

Halloween costumes inspired by a Disney movie have spurred racial tension at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a campus that’s grappled with questions of cultural respect several times in the past year.

The university is investigating a case of four white students who dressed in blackface the weekend before Halloween to portray Jamaican bobsledders from the 1993 movie “Cool Runnings.”

To look the part, they wore spandex outfits decorated with colored duct tape, and painted their faces brown. Photos of the students were posted to the online social networking site Facebook. Someone sent the images to the university administration.

One of the four, who agreed to talk on the condition that he not be identified, said the group hadn’t intended to offend anyone.

“It was just very light-hearted,” he said. “What I feel sorry about is not considering the people who . . . did not see past the face paint.”

He said the group did not think anyone would recognize them as Jamaican bobsledders if they wore just spandex suits.

Some say a white man painting his face to depict a person of color has deeper implications dating to the Civil War era, when blackface was worn in minstrel shows to stereotype black people.

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“We probably need to do better to teach our children and students to see racism,” said Sandra Weissinger, a graduate student studying sociology.

STRING OF INCIDENTS

The U of I case is the latest incidence of blackface at colleges around the nation.

—Last month, four Colorado College hockey players were suspended from the team for four weeks after dressing in blackface at a golf outing where participants portrayed television characters. The foursome chose the show “Family Matters,” which is about a black family.

—A Syracuse University student appeared in blackface as Tiger Woods at an off-campus party in 2002, and his fraternity was suspended.

—A decade ago, a fraternity at State University of West Georgia was disciplined for performing a skit that included blackface.

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“This is a legacy of association to when blackface was a theatrical form of racism,” he said.

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Alex Dhadasih, a senior in general engineering, said people had become too consumed with being politically correct.

“It’s Halloween,” he said.

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