It is with deep concern and urgency that we write this letter to call attention to the troubling state of our campus community.
Over Halloween weekend, on at least two occasions, fellow Lehigh students donned black paint, wore wigs and tennis outfits, and purported the roles of tennis athletes, Venus and Serena Williams. What is so troubling is not the fact of their assuming costumes and alternate personalities, but the deeply offensive way that it was done.
The history of racism in this country is a painful one, blackface being one of the central mechanisms through which the humanity of black Americans was mocked and diminished. And while the incidents on this campus have been deemed funny, inoffensive and even innocent, its parallels with 19th and 20th century depictions of blacks are evident. Thus, even devoid of knowledge of this history, we should find the buffoonish assumption of racialized characters extremely disconcerting. They remain as unjust and deeply hurtful today as they were then.
According to Lehigh’s own Policy on Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action/Non-Discrimination, University Conduct System and Harassment Policy, it is clear that this is a case of harassment. Furthermore, it is an issue that can and should be addressed earnestly.
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.”
Perhaps our friend from Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts said it best when in her response to these incidents, she declared, “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?”
Blackface is often dismissed as innocent humor. However, the laughter surrounding the stereotypical portrayal is precisely what we should find so distressing. That this is a tool systematically used to belittle and cheapen blacks and we could possibly label it as “funny” speaks to the continued degradation of black students at Lehigh.
Then, we must ask, what is the university’s administration doing to combat racism in our time, and amongst our ranks? What does it say about our community that individuals can wear these offensive costumes, which mock their own colleagues and do so without fear of punishment for their offenses? Why does Lehigh continuously turn a blind eye to incidents like these?
Lehigh’s extensive history of race-based discrimination and tactical reluctance to confront its issues demonstrates that discounting the significance of events such as these only perpetuates the racist culture here. It demonstrates that for this university, the concerns of already marginalized students are not a priority. The administration should then follow through with appropriate disciplinary actions since, keeping in mind the recurring intolerance and disrespect (even within our own short tenures at Lehigh), what seems to be the largest contributing factor to the persistence of racism is the fact that things like these are systematically pardoned. What is more, the university should assume the charge revealed from these incidents, which is that it needs to take seriously the need for institutional change and to make this truly an environment where its own members aren’t marginalized. Unfortunately, those actions have been left largely unseen.
The STEPS building was erected like clockwork. Over the same period, we’ve witnessed little institutional action to address the issue of changing our oftentimes hostile and insolent campus environment. It’s time to see the administration and university community make a primary commitment to the cause of making this institution more just, as well as taking the responsibility to lead that project. Only then will our university be able to proclaim that we have held steadfast to our goals of an equitable, inclusive and just community.
Donasia Tillery and Darius Callier, ’11