ARE YOU SERIOUS? BYU BLACK FACE AND THE MEANING OF RACE IN AMERICA

By Dr. Darron T. Smith

It has been nearly a year since Brigham Young University was heralding as “America’s University” for its unapologetic devotion to the honor code when it suspended Brandon Davies, an African American basketball player, on the eve of the 2011 NCAA Basketball tournament. Davies reportedly confessed to having premarital sex with his girlfriend, which is prohibited by the honor code office. The controversy arose when the numbers broke of purportedly much higher rates of black student athletes suspended compared to white student athletes. It appears they are at it again; the institution and the students at BYU, the flagship school of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints, are highlighted in a new and provocative video on YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XGeMy-6hnr0) that attempts to show how little white students actually know about Black History month.

This video underscores a major concern in the profound lack of understanding about race in America. It appears as though many of the students that comedian David Ackerman interviews know very little about the significance of the month of February, and furthermore, very little about the black experience in general. References in Ackerman’s video by the students regarding black Americans having an affinity for fried chicken or Jay-Z as an expectable way to celebrate Black history month is a symptom of something more sinister. These notions are deep-seated stereotypes about the black experience, controlling metaphors regarding the nature and character of people of African descent. People have died over these words in our nation’s past, and the re-enforcement in a highly racialized society like ours today allows these images and words to continue to wound the soul. The evidence is everywhere-just look at any major social indicator from health care to education and analyze how mobile Black Americans have been in 50 plus years after the civil rights movement. The vast majority of Black Americans aren’t doing so hot despite the “success” of a few. The “humor” in the video perhaps is the profound ignorance of the students not knowing how actually racist they’re being. But I cannot help but find it disheartening that Americans still struggle with the vestiges of race, racism and discrimination even amongst our most promising: young folk who weren’t even around during the horrors of the civil rights and students at a major university in America where you would imagine they are being challenged to think critically about human differences. I presume the young people interviewed in the clip are very nice people, and they likely have no idea the harm they’re doing and just how offensive and embarrassing their remarks are to themselves, BYU and the LDS faith. Yet, this demonstrates how enduring race is from each proceeding generation of Americans, particularly in the Mormon faith when you look at its racial history.

What is equally disturbing is Ackerman’s use of the blackface caricature. Although he is attempting to show just how little interaction whites on this campus have with blacks by failing to even recognize that he himself is not black, he does so by bringing in the sordid history of the blackface. Mr. Ackerman is attempting to raise the level of consciousness about race to unsuspecting BYU students. However, I am not sure if he understands and is sensitive of the highly offensive history of Blackface, otherwise known as minstrelsy. Minstrelsy was pure Americana, a racialized form of entertainment consisting of comic spoofs performed by white people in black face make-up especially after the Civil War. White actors would use minstrel shows to satirize black Americans and grossly distort the black image as particularly, lazy, shiftless, uncouth and overly sexed, for example, and these caricatures were extraordinarily popular. Minstrel shows were a controlling discourse, a way to dehumanize (or make less human) black Americans in order to justify brutal white racial oppression. Since then, racist ideas about black Americans have withstood the test of time, evolving into what we now know and recognize as modern forms of racial stereotyping that take on a life of there own such as the famous notion that intimates black Americans prefer welfare compared to white Americans as highlighted in recent GOP utterances by Rick Santorum that he does not “want to make black people lives better by giving them somebody else’s money”. In his attempt to bring about a socially conscious video, Ackerman in turn undermines his very goal by the lack of awareness in the use of the blackface. Ackerman’s video, although well-intentioned, stifles its own progress because he is not well-versed on the history of racism in America. In fact, I can’t help but wonder just how many white students did recognize him as a white man dressing in blackface and found it funny as an acceptable form of comedy.

Outsiders often look at the Mormon faith as a religion drowning in racial demagogy. Take for example, presidential hopeful Mitt Romney in his gaffe stating that he isn’t “concerned about the very poor” since he feels we “have a safety net there”. Of course, his alma mater is none other than BYU, the very focal point of this video. But the reality is these statements made by members of the LDS church are reflective of it being a predominately white faith rather than its Mormon beliefs. We must recognize that this could easily be any major university in the U.S., as the majority of them are predominately white institutions (http://www.jbhe.com/features/51_survey_stateuniversities.html). Equally important to the low representation on campus is the lack of education on our history and the people of this nation. Just how do we expect to educate our youth when the majority of these schools a have a weak or absent commitment to ethnic studies programs? This video demonstrates how persistent racism is and how it continues throughout each generation of White Americans. How can we combat these stereotypes and negative images when they are being handed to the next (previously innocent) generation, and all the while, continuing to create self-doubt amongst people of color?

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