Barzon: Don’t blame blackface on blind hatred

Carlton Barzon

I doubt I was the only student wondering if he knew “the blackface kid.” I was nearly sure it was one of my own friends, who had asked me a week earlier for my opinion about painting his skin tar-black and dressing in FUBU gear for Halloween. He quickly decided against it once I explained the history surrounding his costume choice.

Many people may have promptly rebuked my friend in a storm of expletives and immediately demanded an apology, but this is the sort of reactionary response that poses the biggest obstacle to stable race relations at Northwestern. He genuinely did not understand the racist connotations of his ideas. I understood why he might not, and I responded calmly. As a result, he learned something. I think that’s progress.

Truthfully, when I saw photos of the blackface kid, I laughed myself out of my chair. I could only think, “Wow. How can someone intelligent enough to be admitted to Northwestern University, ‘Harvard of the Midwest,’ lack the tact to recognize such a racially inflammatory costume choice?”

That’s when I remembered NU is a school where I still meet people of every race, ethnicity, creed, political affiliation, etc., who ask me, “How did you grow up to act so white?”

Granted, it’s somewhat easy for me to be rather blasé about this incident. Growing up in the Deep South has imbued me with a thick skin when it comes to issues regarding race.

My father remembers well the everyday injustices of a segregated New Orleans: being harassed by policemen for the crime of “suspiciously” carrying milk; witnessing an unarmed black petty-thief catch a shotgun shell in the back of the head while fleeing from white officers; watching a black woman launch herself into a shouting match with a city bus driver over giving up her seat for a white man.

These tales made the casual racial insensitivity I encountered while attending predominantly white schools in the South not only understandable, but comparatively innocuous by default. I feel the same way when someone dons blackface at NU as when another black person back home tells me I “talk white.” I laugh. I laugh because I know there is just as much hate behind those words as there is in the heart of a white, liberal arts student who thought it would be funny to be a jiggaboo for Halloween: none. The real problem is that we rely on stereotypes to define each other because we’re afraid to talk about what makes us unique without offending someone.

I would have thought a “liberal-minded” institution like NU would be quicker to give the benefit of the doubt and start an educated discussion instead of a witch hunt. I don’t believe racism has disappeared with state-enforced segregation, but answering every racially charged controversy with a call to arms creates an “us-against-them” atmosphere that nullifies any chance we had for learning from our mistakes.

Medill junior Carlton Barzon can be reached at [email protected]