“Blackface” at Lehigh University


This picture was sent to me by a friend who is a student at Lehigh with this message:

“I wanted you to take a look at a picture that I just encountered last
night, after a fellow student forwarded it to me. It’s of two Lehigh
students ‘depicting’ Venus and Serena Williams at Halloween. Many of
us students are organizing around this, and hopefully something
positive will come of all of this.”

“Costumes” such as this stand as a painful reminder of the racial stereotyping featured in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled:

Blackface is not a costume.  It is not a joke, it is not funny, and it is unacceptable.  To anyone who believes we have entered a post-racial era, may this stand as a sufficiently disconcerting reminder that racism remains.

According to Lehigh’s own Policy on Equal Opportunity / Affirmative Action/ Non-Discrimination, University Conduct System, and Harassment Policy, it seems this is a clear case of harassment and that something can and should be done about it.  Take the Harassment Policy’s clause on Stereotypes, for example:

“2.1.3. Stereotyping. Statements that demean people on the basis of
age, color, disability, gender, gender identity, national or ethnic origin,
race, religion, sexual orientation, or veteran status can also contribute
to a hostile work or educational environment. For example, it would be
gender stereotyping to ask a man or a woman why he or she is
majoring in a discipline such as English, Engineering, or Finance
because people of this gender can’t succeed in the area. Another
example of stereotyping would be to ask an older colleague why she or
he hasn’t retired. Each of these isolated questions is not harassment
by itself, but could contribute to a hostile environment.”     

Blackface is most certainly racial stereotyping if nothing else.  An environment that allows something such as this to go unaddressed is one in which many students are uncomfortable.  While I understand these students’ efforts to respond to this event, I am left wondering, should this really be up to students to fight?  Shouldn’t the college uphold its own policies and respond accordingly? 

I, too, hope something good comes of all of this, and I hope most of all that it doesn’t all have to come from the students; a college community is made up of much more.

“Some are to blame, but all are responsible.” – Barack Obama

And last, but certainly not least, I go back to some very wise words about how to tell someone they sound (or, in this case, look) racist.  It’s important to remember: it’s not who or what they are, but what they did.  And I’d like to add, it’s not who or what Lehigh is.  It’s not whether or not we trip; it’s how we rise from falling.

This entry was posted in Activism, News, Race & Ethnicity, United States. Bookmark the permalink.

28 Responses to “Blackface” at Lehigh University

  1. Nandini says:

    Thanks for writing this. Lehigh tends to hush up such acts and more people need to speak up and declare how offensive they find this.

    • Brian Lafond says:

      They do? I distinctly remember the whole campus getting all worked up and having a town-hall meeting last year because “a black female lehigh student was very excited when Obama was announced the presidential winner and the other white students in the room with her weren’t happy and that made her uncomfortable”. In fact, ever since Alice Gast showed up Lehigh has entered a period of super politically correctness freaking out over the smallest event which could be conceived as a hate crime.

  2. Geoff says:

    This is absurd. It is not racist in the least. They are not displaying blacks in a negative light whatsoever. They are portraying two successful black athletes as being exactly what they are- black. If you are offended by this perhaps you should question what is offensive about two white men dressing up like black athletes. Would you consider it as racist if a black student painted him/herself white for a Halloween costume? Simply because something was once used in a racist manner does not mean this same standard can be carried forward throughout all of history. Get a grip on reality. Perhaps if you were striving to be the best black indiviual you could be rather than bitching and moaning about every “injustice” done upon you then race relations would actually improve. Or sit down with the individual and ask what their intentions were before accusing them as well as the school for being racist.

    • mlbeckner says:

      “Perhaps if you were striving to be the best black indiviual you could be rather than bitching and moaning about every ‘injustice’ done upon you then race relations would actually improve.”
      I’m white. I do anti-racism and ally work.

      “Or sit down with the individual and ask what their intentions were before accusing them as well as the school for being racist.”
      I ask you to re-read my last paragraph:
      “And last, but certainly not least, I go back to some very wise words about how to tell someone they sound (or, in this case, look) racist. It’s important to remember: it’s not who or what they are, but what they did. And I’d like to add, it’s not who or what Lehigh is. It’s not rather or not we trip; it’s how we rise from falling.”
      I am not calling these students racist. I am not calling Lehigh University racist. I am not calling dressing up as someone who is of a race different than one’s own racist. I am calling Blackface racist.

    • jay says:

      “They are portraying two successful black athletes as being exactly what they are- black. ”
      thats all they are???????

  3. Brian Lafond says:

    How is blackface when used in a situation like this the least bit racist? It’s a costume. Why is it ok for people to dress up as celebrities of their own race, but not of another? All you were shown was an image. No story, no other details. If these kids were simply being the Williams sister than I see no racism at all. Now, if these kids were acting and saying racist things, then you’ve got a problem, however I do not believe that was the case.

    • mlbeckner says:

      You certainly have allies to your argument. Take “Innocent Halloween costume or blackface?” by Robyn Urback (http://oncampus.macleans.ca/education/2009/11/15/editorial-innocent-halloween-costume-or-blackface/): “Blackface is a very specific type of makeup worn in the 19th century by white actors playing black characters. Blackface makeup exaggerated racist stereotypes, contributing to overall attitudes of intolerance. I think saying these U of T students wore ‘blackface’ is a bit of a stretch. Just because something looks similar, doesn’t mean it’s the same. For example, if someone wears a flashing star broach, it doesn’t mean she’s making fun of Jews in Nazi-occupied Germany. Maybe she just likes tacky jewelry.”
      My point here is not to call these students or Lehigh University racist. I don’t think these students or the university are racist. I do think that Blackface is racist, and even if this is not considered Blackface by all, there are students who are offended and therefore it has the potential to make their learning environment uncomfortable.
      Not knowing more of the background than I presented, I do not assume anything further. I do not think these students meant any harm whatsoever; I imagine that they were doing what you say, simply dressing up. However, there are costumes that hearken back to historical contexts, making these costumes greater than themselves. Even the simplest ghost costumes (white sheet thrown over self), when they remind those who suffered persecution from the KKK of the white costumes they wore, have an impact that cannot be ignored, despite its innocent intentions.
      That is my point, that impact warrants attention and response if students feel uneasy, offended, or harassed. Good intentions are not enough to leave that impact ignored.

      • Brian Lafond says:

        An excellent reply. Here’s an issue though.

        These students were at off-campus parties in private residences. They were not even walking around the campus in their costumes unless maybe to get to and from the event. How did this impact the black student’s lives at all other than coming across the images on facebook? How does the fact that these students dressed up as the Williams sisters change anything about the offended students academic success, safety on campus, or any of that? The offended students had zero contact with the students in the photo.

        Does the simple fact that there may be racists somewhere on Lehigh’s campus raise the need for a campus wide email from the vice provost and all this reaction? I’m sorry, but there are going to be racists, and sexists, you name it in all walks of life. That’s something you simply have to deal with.

        In fact, Lehigh has been doing a lot to work for equality. We have programs, events, clubs, etc. setup primarily to teach and encourage equality. We have multicultural offices and dorms. I would say that Lehigh on a whole is actually a fairly welcoming university for minorities and the university actively recruits them.

        In this case, I feel that the offended students took the WRONG course of action by going to the university officials. They should have attempted to contact the individuals first. I also think the university took the WRONG course of action by sending out a campus wide email announcing its plans to discipline these individuals.

      • mlbeckner says:

        Why thank you. Furthermore, thank you for filling in some more of the story. As I said in another comment, I have what I presented in the article, and do not wish to assume any more than that.

        If this did happen at private residences, I would assume that it is beyond college jurisdiction to take action against them. However, that is not what I am suggesting here. Therefore, where these students wore these costumes is somewhat irrelevant if it still has an impact on members of the student body, which it does. Also, the fact that “[t]hey were not even walking around the campus in their costumes unless maybe to get to and from the event” is a red flag for me… Why? Were they afraid of being seen by someone in particular? If so, why? Why do you point it out as if it was acceptable because of where it occured (suggesting it might have been unacceptable had it occured elsewhere)?

        Racists and sexists are not something with which I simply have to “deal.” Oppression is something I’m up against, and I want to change the system for the better.

        I have recently learned of some of the work for equality being done. I’m glad steps are being taken! However, this is hardly the end of the issues; it is the beginning of making things better. Also, being “diverse” does not mean being free from racism, sexism, etc.

        You are entitled to think these students were wrong, that’s your opinion. This post and my responses are my opinions.
        As far as the action the college is taking, that’s up to them. I am impressed by their quick response. It speaks highly of the university to me.

  4. mlbeckner says:

    Council for Equity and Community
    Office of the President (Alice Gast)
    “Lehigh faculty, staff and students are devoted to creating a richer educational experience by helping to build a stronger community that transcends racial, cultural and other boundaries.”
    Learn more about Lehigh’s efforts to “promote an inclusive community of campus diversity that is receptive to all differences such as age, color, disability, gender, gender identity, marital status, national or ethnic origin, race, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic background, and veteran status.”

  5. Valerie Beckner says:

    Excellent posts, Linley. I agree one hundred percent. Not only do I think in this photo these folks are being disrespectful to two beautiful black athletes, I also think they are being disrespectful to women.

    Interesting comments about Lehigh. I do not agree that any of us just “have to deal with racists and sexists.” We have the opportunity to not join in with this bullying type of behavior. As bystanders, we have the power to stand up and say “No. I will not tolerate this.” I am sure there are students and faculty at Rutgers, South Hadley High School, and many other schools who wish they had stood up.

    When I hear that Lehigh has been doing a “lot of work for equality,” I know that there remains a lot of work to be done.

  6. JGB says:

    Good conversation all. excellent divergent points raised, most in a respectful manner.
    regarless of one’s perspective on this particular incient, it is clear that the issue of blackface is a flashpoint. it is clear that emotions abound around this and issues of race in general. it is clear that continued conversataion on (even a global scale) is necessary for us as the human race to understand then celebrate differences.
    I would suggest we not let the issue of blame enter the conversation because we do not know the intent of the two young men and their costuming choices. we cannot blame the black students who were offened. additionally, this cannot be used to convict the school nor students as racist.
    it is what it is…an event.
    what becomes important, what makes it defining, is how we respond to the event. do we attempt to understand the positions of others. do we commit to admitting that the experience, values and positions of others are of value? can we see the event as an opportunity to understand our own and other’s opinions? can we search the event and the postings of others to cull what lessons and insights we might gain?
    I contend that the clearest indicator of racism is how we respond to the event.
    again…good conversation all. thank you mlbeckner for opening the conversation.

  7. Pingback: Is Blackface ever acceptable? | All Rights for All – Todos los derechos para todxs

  8. Chantel Finner says:

    I graduated in 2010 and it looks like Lehigh hasn’t changed a bit. Lehigh has some of the most intolerant, racial insensitive, and bigoted people I’ve ever encountered. When I was there they skinned an animal and left it in front of the umoja house. They yell racial slurs at black students walking around campus. Many, not all, are extremely ignorant to anything nonwhite. These students who dressed up in blackface are either racists, insensitive, or don’t know the history of blackface and are being unintentionally racist. Either way it doesn’t say much about the student body.

    • mlbeckner says:

      For those reading in: “The UMOJA House, also affectionately known as the U-House, was originally established to enhance the campus atmosphere for underrepresented students of color at Lehigh University. The house offers a safe, comfortable, and pleasurable residential environment for ANY student who values multiculturalism. The Offices of Residence Life and Multicultural Affairs work together to make the U-House a hot spot for celebrating diversity.”
      Learn more here: http://www4.lehigh.edu/housing/residencehalls/az/umoja.aspx

  9. lm says:

    wow, sometimes I can’t believe that something that concerns or upsets one’s fellow students so much isn’t seen as an issue which needs to be addressed, racist or not. Some people are not only unbelievably ignorant but incredibly selfish.

  10. John Connor says:

    It’s a Halloween costume, find something better to do with your time than raise issues about this. You’re dumb.

    • mlbeckner says:

      I welcome any real argument you might have. I welcome all sides to the debate. I do not welcome unwarranted attempts to attack my intelligence. If you have anything productive to say, bring it on, I’d love to hear it. I hope “you’re dumb” isn’t actually the best you have.

    • JGB says:

      One’s comments often provide much insight into the person behind the keyboard. John, your self diagnosis is the perfect example.

  11. Pingback: Letter to the Editor: No excuse for use of blackface | All Rights for All – Todos los derechos para todxs

  12. Andrea Espinoza says:

    Dear Mr. Connor,
    Have you even read what the issue is here?

  13. Pingback: Black Face Incident (Lehigh’s Response) | All Rights for All – Todos los derechos para todxs

  14. Mike says:

    Well I agree, this is racist. But what is really disappointing is how people dress up as stereotypical native americans (indians) every year for hollowed as well as theme parties and everyone pretends it is just fine and not racist (not to mention how people pick fun and make stereotypes of cattleranchers at “cowboys and indians” parties). And how a student went to class wearing a sombrero, mustache, and pancho on holloween and nothing was made of it. And how holloween is disrespectful to certain people because it is demeaning to people who celebrate Samhain. And how girls dress up like “sexy nurses” implying the job is femine or trivial. Also how lehigh hired a comic to preform during greek week who happens to have an extremely racist show (tosh.o) . And how people would get together in public areas in the dorm to watch dave chappelle eppisodes where he dresses up in what i only would guess would be called white face as he covers himself in white powder to look caucasion.

    • mlbeckner says:

      Too true. I’d add to your list school and sports teams mascots like “The Braves” and “The Redskins.” Also movies like Peter Pan where white actors are tanned and reddened (and often princess “Tiger Lily” remains white). Girls’ and women’s’ costumes are so often so sexualizing… A young girl this year actually said she was dressing up to be “a French maid ho.” (Her words not mine.) I was going to write a blog post women’s costumes but couldn’t negotiate the line around agency to a point where I fully agreed with my own argument, so I didn’t (yet). I agree; there are problems with all that you listed (not being a Lehigh student I don’t know all the ins and outs of it all; I know what I know but am always looking to learn more). I hope the attention this got will help all of these situations become unacceptable. Thanks for your reply!

    • JGB says:

      Thanks Mike for helping me see this issue in a more broad context. You too MLBeckner.

  15. Pingback: Two Lehigh men who dress in blackface for Halloween party stir reaction from the fellow students, university officials and the local NAACP | All Rights for All – Todos los derechos para todxs

  16. Pingback: Where do we go from here? | All Rights for All – Todos los derechos para todxs

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