Black Face at Brock: ‘Is it racist if they didn’t mean it?’

TAMARI KITOSSA

(Hyperlinks to secondary sources are emboldened)

According to the Respectful Work and Learning Environment Policy: “Brock University opposes behaviour that is likely to undermine the dignity, self-esteem or productivity of an any of its members and prohibits any form of discrimination or harassment whether it occurs on University property or in conjunction with University-related activities…”. In the case of sexual harassment and blackface incidents, do these words have any substance?

Disturbingly, sexual assault and harassment are pervasive and do not get the same media attention as periodic incidents of black face. Yet, both forms of discrimination are linked by administrative indifference. The message being sent appears to say: racism and sexual harassment are tolerated at Brock University. With the recurrence of black face on the campus the pattern of neglect is very clear. In 2009, costumed as Li’l Wayne, BUSU Halloween contestant winners netted $800. That in 2014 BUSU could again allow black face contestants to even enter the university premises, never mind win $500, points to the reality of systemic racism.

The spirit and letter of the Respectful Work and Learning Environment Policy is being systematically sidelined. Speaking of “dignity”, “human rights” and other pious platitudes the document is clear about what ‘racial harassment’ looks like: “‘Racial Harassment’ is a form of Human Rights Harassment. It is any behaviour, deliberate or otherwise, relating to race, colour, ethnic or national origin, directed at an individual or group, which is found to be offensive or objectionable to the recipient and which creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive environment”. Relevant to the black face incident, euphemistically called a lack of “historical consciousness” by Dr. Jack Lightstone, the document provides a non-exhaustive list of examples for ‘racial harassment’. Most notable is the inclusion of “verbal abuse, threats, derogatory name-calling, racist slurs, insults and/or jokes”. The four students “costumed” in black face, party goers, BUSU and the administration of Brock University can claim there was no offence intended, but is that really the issue? It becomes possible to subordinate effect to intent if one ignores history and construes whiteness and maleness as an identities marked by innocence. More than this, the legal doctrine of disparate impact asserts that effect rather than intent is basic in determining injuries to marginalized groups. Thus, it is immaterial that some African Canadian students do not feel offended by black face and it is a non-issue if people ‘of colour’, such as the Wayan brothers, put on ‘white face’ “costumes”.

Since so much of the dispute about how to interpret the events at Isaac’s rests on intent versus effect, the following remarks may demonstrate the relevance of ‘disparate impact’ for the Respectable Work and Learning Environment Policy. I suggest, however, while marginalized groups may rely on such policies to limited effect, we must move beyond dependency on a capitalist, colonialist and patriarchal state-sponsored bureaucratic elite to resolve systemically generated problems.

History: While true enough that black face is as traditional to Canada as Anne of Green Gables, it is a fact that slavery of Pawnees in Lower Canada and of African peoples in Lower and Upper Canada and the Maritimes was also a routine part of life. Contrary to Dr. Lightstone’s perception that black face was a southern US pastime, it also that spanned the breadth of Canada in the 19th century. Indeed, D. W. Griffith, famous for Birth of a Nation, routinely travelled in vaudeville and stage tours in Ontario. Nevertheless black face was not simply vaudevillian, it was metaphoric nostalgia for a time when African people were the chattel property of White people. It is significant that vaudeville appealed to the White working class and immigrant crowds. Many of whom like the Irish, Italians and Jews were negatively racialized.

Black face signified a marking White immigrant and working class participation in an imperial White civilization. To take on a ‘bit of the other’ to blacken up, which Black people cannot do in any way that can be considered ‘reverse racism’, was to participate in a communal culture of whiteness in which the owning of human chattel was a high mark of civilization. The point was not to denigrate blackness and African people – that was beside the point. Rather, the aim was to articulate a framework for the emergence of whiteness as a currency, a property in its own right, since by its selective and strategic ‘taking on’ of the Black other, whiteness took on the quality of an identity that conferred exclusive rights and privileges. Whiteness in ‘taking on’ blackness was repudiating that which it mimicked; thereby, re-inscribing a cultural context where whiteness would have the status of a property. In cultural terms to appropriate blackness then and now, is literally to stake a proprietary claim on the identity of the Black other. We must therefore understand property, in particular whiteness as property, not as a “thing” but as a relation of exclusion.

When White (and other) Canadians “blacken up” and in that instant appropriate the Black other, they engage in pre-confederate Canada’ of owning the Black other. Surprising to many, Black people were chattel property in what is now Canada. But the issue of slavery and blackness run deep in their connection to Brock University. Afua Cooper, Canadian scholar and poet, has shown Joseph Brant was an enslaver of over 30 African people: ironic given that various Iroquois ‘tribes’ adopted, and even promoted to chieftainship, many Africans that escaped US slavery. While Sir Isaac Brock did not own slaves, according to Cordella Macrae his reputed sexual liaison with a Ghanaian princess who became his family’s cook – Amy Malawice – led to the conception of Ester Malawice Banks. While this latter fact is either disputed or believed to lack foundation, the jury is still out. Both Brock and Brant fought in the War of 1812 with the Butler’s Rangers Coloured Corps and the famed Richard Pierpoint. Given this history, the past and the present are linked. When Britain abolished slavery in 1833, it did so with the careful enumeration of enslaved Africans in its dominions with an eye to their market value. In the Caribbean alone, 800,000 Africans were assessed to be valued at £47 million. No African in any British dominion, including pre-confederation Canada, could be freed until they provided an eight year period of “apprenticeship”. Thus the British Parliament effectively extorted Africans to pay for the other half of their market value. This compensation suited well Upper Canada legislators who were slave owners. Hilary Beckles, a noted Caribbean historian, shows that the British Parliament compensated slave owners with at least £20 million in direct grants. It is galling that African Canadian students and their families continue to pay ancillary fees and tuition to a university that undermines their dignity. Students should not be remunerated for ‘putting on’ an identity with social penalties that no White man, unlike the intrepid John Howard Griffin, would wish to be sentenced.

The social right to exclude is always an act of power, and so too memory an act of cultural and political power. Thus, Dr. Lightstone’s comment that the students in black face lacked “historical consciousness” has the effect delinking past racism from current its manifestations. But where racism is concerned, those who have power exercise it with impunity. Learned through socialization, defended and enlarged in myriads of everyday interactions, “White ignorance” is the willful unknowing of racialized power.

(Liquid) Modernity: Zygmunt Bauman argues that late modernity is typified by anxieties and uncertainty that are soothed by consumerism. According to this argument consumerism is a defining element of the capacity to experience, feel and know one’s identity. This implies that one can get to know one’s identity by consuming that of Others. Paradoxically, however, the Other that is consumed is imagined as fixed and knowable. Precisely because of racism in popular culture, blackness cannot and does not experience fluidity. Rather, it is an object for the play of the White racialized cultural imaginary. Thus, blackness is commodified in and by popular culture as ‘hip’ and ‘cool’; freely to be taken on and off, as with black face, without any sense of the power inherent to the capacity to ‘change’ and ‘exchange’ identities. But in a racist culture that treats Black identity as a ‘single story’, there is a flip-side to stereotyped representations of blackness as ‘cool’. And, that is blackness as bad and Black people as dangerous. This other side of ‘liquid modernity’ becomes solid and legitimates fear, loathing and moral panic. It manifests in the stigmatization of poor Black women as ‘welfare queens’, the criminalization of Black students through the school to prison pipeline, mass incarceration and the wanton killings of Black men by police. These effects signal the disutility and precariousness of Black life in a ‘modernity’ that many people ‘of colour’ experience as solid rather than ‘liquid’.

In microcosm, the administration’s refusal to submit privileged males to ceremonies of ritual degradation confirms the silencing and oppression of those subjected to the provocations of systemic inequity. Given the prevalence of implicit racism in general and anti-Blackness in particular, the administration’s decision to avoid sanctions on the black face culprits is more than a dereliction of duty. Rather, it confirms the fascism of a liberal order where rules are meant to protect the powerful who have ‘affluenza’, are reckless (i.e., not terrorists) or are just too big to indict.

What must be done now? It goes without saying that the ill-gotten $500 should be returned and BUSU must reserve that money to support justice initiatives on the campus. At an academic institution that insists in its Degree Level Expectations that professors should instruct students in the art of ‘critical thinking’, higher administration should exercise that very skill. They can begin and must be seen to apply the letter and spirit of the Respectful Work and Learning Environment Policy. By ignoring the doctrine of ‘disparate impact’ the administration implicitly cultivates a brooding culture of animosity, distrust and fear which poisons the work and learning environment. Ultimately, the road to repairing the compounded injuries of racial, sexual and other forms of harassment that are so pervasive at Brock University will require difficult conversations. That process can be enriched by students, parents and the broader community demanding Brock’s higher administration and Board of Governors give account for in/actions that reinforce social inequities. More than this, however, persons of conscience must move beyond the complacency of legislating morality to strengthening justice for the common good.

*Tamari Kitossa is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology at Brock University

**Views and opinions expressed in letters to the editor do not necessarily reflect those of the corporation of The Brock Press. For more information, visit brockpress.com/about

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