Posted on November 11, 2009

Apology Sought After U of T Students Cause Uproar With Blackface for Halloween

Jill Mahoney, Globe and Mail (Toronto), November 11, 2009

A University of Toronto student group is demanding public apologies from organizers of a Halloween party after participants wearing dark makeup were given a costume prize.

Five students, who were dressed as members of the Jamaican bobsled team and covered their faces with brown makeup, received the award from an elected student representative of one of the U of T’s colleges.

The costumes and award became intensely controversial after the Torontoist blog posted a story and photo of the men. Some argue the makeup deeply offended blacks and should never have been recognized with an award. Those on the other side say the costumes were innocent and that detractors are overreacting.

The debate was expected to bubble over last night at a town hall meeting organized by the U of T’s Black Students’ Association. The group says the costumes perpetuate blackface, the theatrical makeup associated with biased portrayals of blacks, and are as offensive as wearing Nazi regalia. A Facebook posting generated more than 300 comments, many of them heated.

“Using blackface as a costume, I think it’s wrong in any context,” said Dawn Samuel, president of the BSA. “It’s hard because some people unwittingly do things, but at the same time you need to recognize it for what it is.”

The BSA is demanding that student party organizers from three colleges–St. Michael’s College, University College and Victoria University–publish apologies in their colleges’ newspapers.

“The issue for most people was not the students that were in the costume, but the fact that they were praised,” said Daniella Kyei, vice-president of equity for the U of T students’ union.

Catherine Brown, president of Victoria University’s Student Administrative Council, said that while the three colleges organized the Oct. 29 Halloween party, only representatives from St. Michael’s College decided to award a costume prize.

“We regret that this insensitive costume was documented as one of the best costumes of the night,” she said.

Officials from St. Michael’s College Student Union did not return messages yesterday.

In a post on the Torontoist website last week, Deryn, the student who awarded the prize the day after the event, apologized and said he didn’t think the costumes would cause offence. But, after reading up about blackface, he wrote that he “felt embarrassed and upset over my own ignorance in how potentially offensive something of this nature could be.” The costume award consisted of free admission to the group’s next party, worth $5.

In a separate post, the students who dressed as the Jamaican Bobsled Team said they didn’t intend to offend anyone and were trying to portray the characters in the movie, Cool Runnings, a comedy based on the Jamaican national bobsled team’s debut at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary.

The group consisted of four white students who wore brown makeup. One also sported a black wig. In addition, a Trinidadian student wore white makeup to portray the movie’s coach, played by John Candy.

“This movie played a large part in our childhoods, and we simply wanted to express our feelings towards it with realistic costumes, which in this case included skin color,” the post says.

They also wrote: “Would things be different if we dressed as Barack Obama, the leader of the free world? We believe so . . . ”