Liveblog: Forum on blackface and race at NU

Daily staff

6:10 p.m.: People are still shuffling into Norris’ Louis Room at 6:15. Students, faculty, administrators and possible Evanston residents line the walls and sit shoulder to shoulder.

As everyone mingles and says hello to old or new friends, student leaders, including Associated Student Government President Mike McGee, survey the crowd.

6:15 p.m.: For Members Only Coordinator Marrion Johnson and McGee introduced themselves and thanked the forum’s sponsors, Coalition of Colors, ASG and Student Affairs.

Johnson discussed the purpose of the forum: not the Halloween blackface incident but how “the actions of students …are reflective upon the culture of Northwestern.”

Two professors from the African American studies department will speak, one who will discuss the history of blackface and the other who will moderate the discussion.

“We want to use this as an opportunity,” McGee said. “Have an open, honest and yet respective dialogue about those issues….really make this productive.”

6:20 p.m.: Interim Dean of Students Burgie Howard thanked students for being here and spoke about the unintended consequences of actions.

“I know, having had conversations with people involved, that this is not what they wanted,” Howard said, adding that the students were glad that a dialogue had come out of the situation.

6:25 p.m.: Professor Sandra Richards first said she appreciates the attention President Morton O. Schapiro has given this forum and the people who took the time to come out. She gave a brief history of blackface, mentioning that black actors were forced to blacken their faces and play a minstrel role in order to find work.

(Related: read the full text of Richards’ speech)

Other ethnic groups were similarly stereotyped in the 1800s, Richards said. But as their upper mobility changed offstage, their onstage depictions changed as well.

“Because so many black people are still consigned to substandard schools…to impoverished neighborhoods… to higher rates of incarceration, blackface continues to wound,” she said. “It continues to say, ‘You don’t belong.'”

Racial profiling and stereotypes are a problem at NU, which made last weekend’s incident especially troubling, she said.

“I’m not saying that they students who blacked out meant that,” she said. “But i am saying that this is what the sign reads.”

6:45 p.m.: Professor Barnor Hesse took the stage to talk about race, applauding the diversity in the room. He said he would like to lead a dialogue on issues of race, but emphasizes that the question depends on the participants’ level of interest.

“Unlike poverty, or housing, or health, or climate change, everybody’s got an opinion that they think is worth listening to–no,” he said. “You’ve got to think about it.”

“It does not turn on how much you understand it… the committment is to tackling the issues.”

Hesse asked students to reflect on a few questions:

  1. What does it mean?
  2. Are there any further issues connected with this? Is it symptomatic of something else?
  3. Is there an issue of race at Northwestern? How does it manifest itself? How should we talk about it?

6: A female student stood to ask whether the fact that the students were dressed up for Halloween should be taken into account.

“I think we should talk about whether (the black paint) is crucial to the costume or whether you should just leave it behind because it causes too much pain,” she said. Another student responded: “I think there’s a big difference between dressing up as someone who is black and dressing in blackface… Black people aren’t the color black. We have brown skin. Maybe if they were to use brown paint or something, there would be some difference.”

Another student: “I think they were ignorant about it rather than malicious.”

6:55 p.m.: The room broke into applause when a graduate student spoke about how the universities email alert system for crimes makes racism on campus worse.

“We have to look at the way this institution itself helps to exacerbate the situation,” she said. “What I want to mention is these horrible blast alerts that come out across the e-mail. Who were the suspects? Two black males in their 20s. Look around–how many black males in their 20s do you see? … That is not disconnected from the problems of racial profiling on this campus.”

She said more descriptors would make the e-mails less offensive.

“Are they tall? Are they short? Do they have hair? Do they not have hair?” she asked.

7:05 p.m.: A professor rose to say she would like to see more diversity in the upper levels of the faculty and administration.

“I think you have to put your money where your mouth is,” she said. “Show us.”

7:08 p.m.: A student said she sees the blackface incident as a catalyst, but mentioned a conversation with a friend who said it was “the community of color complaining again.””It’s not about the community of color complaining, it’s about us saying to the community as a whole, ‘This is why this is offensive,'” she said.

7:10 p.m.: A student said she doesn’t think the color of the paint is the issue: it’s that the students reduced what it is to be black down to a color.

“Just because you go to an exclusive, top-tier university doesn’t mean you’re smart. it doesn’t mean you’re educated,” she said. Another student argued that the problem could be helped with more dialogue.

“The real problem is that we don’t talk amongst our friends about race,” he said. “I’ve taken a class on African American philosophy–which will be offered next quarter–which you should take.”

7:20 p.m.: A student made waves for saying it is more important to look to the future than focus on the past. “If you look at everyone here, say we walked in this room and had no knowledge of our past, you’d look at me and say ‘He has a darker hue than I do,’ but you wouldn’t think, ‘he’s more likely to rob a bank.,'” he said. “…I don’t think we should look at the history.” There were grumbles from the audience before he finished his point.”I’m going to tell you that you’re on your own,” Hesse said, to audience laughter. The student stood up and walked away from his seat.

7:25 p.m.: A white freshman student said joining FMO when she came to campus has helped inspire her to learn about other cultures.”I want to go join the Taiwanese Student Association, and I don’t really know many Taiwanese people,” she said. “But before I came to Evanston I didn’t really know any black people either.”

“I want to encourage everyone to go outside your comfort zone.”

7:30 p.m.: A student said she didn’t expect to see this response to the blackface incident.

“There’s always going to be people who do things that are offensive… but what was scary for the minority population on campus was that it didn’t seem like people were going to do anything about it,” she said. “For people to come here (to Northwestern), we need to feel safe, and I didn’t feel safe.”

The fact that so many students attended the forum showed her that people do care, she said.

7:33 p.m.: Two students spoke about why it is important that the messages of the forum move beyond tonight’s event. One problem is the attendence: although many students came out, the students argued that those who need to hear the message probably did not.

Something needs to be done beyond just discussion, one student said.

“Are we going to stay the same?” she asked. “I think that it is a disgrace that we still have to have these forums wh
ere we’re really just talking to ourselves.”

7:35 p.m.: A student challenged President Morton O. Schapiro to say how the administration plans to tackle issues of race, but Hesse said Schapiro will not speak until later in the night.

7:38 p.m.: A student said he would like to see his fellow black students take the lead on combatting racism on campus. “It really isn’t up to the administration to set the tone… it’s up to us, the African American students,” he said. “It’s hard for someone else to tell your history for you.”

7:42 p.m.: A Muslim student said she thinks the most important thing is to be open to dialogue and respond to ignorance with answers and not anger.

7:45 p.m.: The conversation has moved to what we should do. Hesse said he will allow two students to speak, then Schapiro.

7:49 p.m.: Kwanda Scott, who works for residential life, said she is the only black area coordinator and recommended students read Tim Wise’s book Between Barack and a Hard Place” and educate themselves on “white priviledge.”

“It is not the oppressed people that should teach the oppressors how to end the oppression,” she said. “I ask my supervisor, ‘Why is it that our department doesn’t look like this room?’ That’s white priviledge.”

Hesse recommended students take African American Studies or Asian Studies courses, while one student suggested students try to get outside the NU bubble.

“I encourage you to go to the south side of Chicago and see what that culture’s about,” he said. “Chicago’s very segregated, but it’s rich in cultural history.”

7:55 p.m.: Black students shouldn’t be asked to lead the effort against racism, a student said.

“There has to be some kind of legislation or some kind of administrative rule about how we dress for Halloween,” she said, pointing to costumes based on stereotypes about other cultures. “I’m not comfortable with that burden being on me,” she said.

7:58 p.m.: Some confusion over whether Schapiro will speak: Alex Sims, president of miinority empowerment group Promote 360, said it was part of the agreement for the forum that Schapiro wouldn’t be put on the spot.

Hesse said Schapiro should–and will–speak.

8:05 p.m.: Schapiro said he hopes to see the forum as a catalyst for change on campus, and spoke about his plans for improving diversity on campus.”I’d like to say I know the answer of what you do for next year’s Halloween, but I don’t,” he said, mentioning restrictions with freedom of speech and behavior. He said he agreed that crime report emails will no longer include vague descriptions that “stigmitize large numbers of people,” prompting applause.Schapiro said minority enrollment numbers should be at record numbers, calling the fact that they are not “a disgrace,” he said. He said the administration would redouble their efforts at improving enrollment and curriculum to reflect diverse cultures. Schapiro asked students not to clap at several points, arguing that they should wait until he has achieved something.

“I am the president here, and you have to hold me responsible for that,” he said. “If I can’t solve those kinds of things, Northwestern deserves someone who can,” he said. “I’m holding you accountable as well. If you love this community–or if you’re a part of it–go out there, put yourself in uncomfortable situations, and work toward the diversity of this school. We have a lot of work to do, and I think this is a good beginning–don’t clap.”

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