Blackface Costumes Spark Dialogue

 By Dana Williams

    A Halloween costume contest at an off-campus college hangout ended with several Stetson University students capturing first place — and a visit to the dean of students. 
   Students from the university’s predominantly white girls softball team attended last week’s event dressed as the Stetson basketball team — a mostly black squad. Some of the girls donned various shades of blackface makeup, cornrows, baseball caps, gold teeth and jerseys. 
   A Stetson student who asked that her name be withheld alerted to a website containing photos from the costume party. The photos, which have since been removed from the website, showed the girls huddled together in various poses, wearing green basketball jerseys. 
    In one of the pictures, a girl with light brown makeup, cornrows and dark sunglasses flashes several gold teeth. In another picture, the same girl is shown next to a teammate smiling in jet-black makeup that covers her face, neck and arms. 
   ”Personally, I know a lot of people who were offended when they saw the girls,” the Stetson student wrote in an email. 
   But, she added, “I do not think the girls were trying to be racist; I honestly believe that they do not understand what they did.” 
   Another Stetson student, Ian Wasser, said he believes the girls’ actions could be viewed as “a crime against decorum,” calling the incident a “hurtful attack upon the diversity of our community.” 
   But Wasser said before condemning the perpetrators, others should consider whether the intent was that of harm or play. 
   ”I feel that these girls, if they have offended anyone, should be told what harmful consequences their costumes may have caused,” Wasser said. “Instead of sending them to the (dean’s) office, I would instead have them get a look of shame and a reminder to be considerate of others’ feelings as much as possible.” 
‘A perfect teaching moment’ 
   Officials at Stetson said they do not plan to take disciplinary actions against the girls for their role in last week’s costume party. Instead, officials said they are focusing their efforts on education. 
   ”I was very surprised to learn of the costumes and the photos,” said Michelle Espinosa, Stetson’s dean of students. “We don’t condone that behavior, and it is not an accurate representation of Stetson and what we stand for. I was surprised that they may not have understood the breadth of the impact of their actions.” 
     Espinosa, who met with the girls as a group, said the incident “creates an opportunity for very meaningful discussion among faculty and students.” 
    Leonard Nance, chair of Stetson’s diversity council, said the university plans to sponsor campuswide diversity dialogues and workshops in response to the incident. 
   ”This is a perfect teaching moment for us to help students understand why this is inappropriate and unacceptable,” Nance said. 
   The recent Halloween incident isn’t the first such teaching moment the university has faced. 
   The school’s student newspaper was suspended in 2003 following an April Fool’s edition containing racist, misogynistic jokes and a sex column that many interpreted as promoting domestic violence. 
   Espinosa said the university learned a great deal from the newspaper incident. 
   ”We learned that the quickness of response sends a clear message that that kind of behavior is not accepted, not appropriate and not tolerated on our campus,” she said. 
   ”We learned that students sometimes learn more from discussions that arise as the result of difficult situations, real situations and not hypothetical ones. We hope to apply some of what we learned in this situation, too.” 
Incident not uncommon 
    Stetson is not the only learning institution dealing with fallout from incidents involving racially or culturally offensive costumes this Halloween season. 
   About a dozen high school students in Rising Sun, Ind., caused an uproar last week when they wore Ku Klux Klan outfits to a school Halloween dance. 
   ”I think it gets back to the education we need to do not only as a school but as a community about why these things are unacceptable,” Superintendent Steve Patz told WCOP News. 
   The students involved were told they would have to attend sensitivity training or risk suspension. 
     At Highland Park High School in Dallas, Tex., students and faculty agreed last week to end “Thug Day,” a three-year homecoming tradition where students at the predominately white school wore Afro wigs and gold teeth to school. 
     The local NAACP and others complained the tradition was racially and culturally insensitive. 
     ”What’s … offensive to me is that some of these privileged white kids associate being a ‘thug’ with being black or Hispanic,” columnist James Ragland wrote about the incident in The Dallas Morning News (free registration required). 
     At Stetson, officials hope the recent blackface incident will create a greater awareness about and respect for diversity on campus long after this crisis has passed. 
    “We have to keep finding ways to talk about race and talk about it as a community,” Nance said. “Hopefully people won’t use this incident as the only marker of who we are at Stetson, but will instead look at how we responded to it.” 
This essay originally appeared on, the website of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Alabama.