On October 30, BUSU awarded $500 to the winning team in their Halloween Costume Contest, a group of four students dressed as 1993 film Cool Running’s Jamaican bobsledders, wearing blackface. The costume contest was held in Isaac’s Bar and Grill as a part of their Threesome Thursday Halloween party. The winner(s) would receive $500,with second and third place getting a flat screen TV and $50, respectively.
After, one of the winning students tweeted a picture of the costumes to Brock’s twitter account with the caption, “Hey @BrockUniversity we just won the costume contest at isaacs”, the scandal gained the attention of many members in the Brock community, including Larry Savage, director of the Centre for Labour studies. Shortly after an open letter was posted on the Brock Labour Studies Facebook page, saying that, “The incident at Isaac’s has generated concern and anxiety on campus, particularly because the students wearing blackface were awarded a cash prize for their costume”.
The letter notes the history of blackface as an entertainment attraction for white tourists and how “Blackface can never be disassociated from the vicious legacy of white supremacy and institutionalized anti-Black racism in the United States and Canada”.
The letter is signed by Savage as well as Professor Simon Black (Assistant Professor, Centre for Labour Studies,); Professor Kendra Coulter (Associate Professor, Centre for Labour Studies); and Nick Ruhloff-Queiruga (Brock Labour Studies Students’ Association). It closes with a call for a response from Brock’s administration, stating that, “We fear that without a strong rebuke from senior administration and a clear anti-racism plan of action moving forward, what happened at Isaac’s will be validated and a message will be sent to the Brock community that racism is an accepted reality of campus life. ”
Although Savage noted that, “the Student Union’s initial response to the incident was halting, at best”, BUSU has since released a statement in further response to the incident. President Roland Erman writes that, ” BUSU is taking steps to ensure that an incident like this does not occur again”.
While never directly identifying what the issue at the costume contest was, the statement goes on to say that, “BUSU will be ensuring that the current workplace safety and harassment training that is presented to our front line staff […] is expanded to training and awareness of equity and human rights issues similar to the training our Full-Time staff receives through the Ontario Human Rights Commission”.
To address the nature of future costume contests, in the statement Erman explains that, “BUSU will be taking steps to ensure that entrants into such type of contests are vetted with a supervisor of the respective area before being presented to the crowd and before they are eligible for prizes and other forms of recognition”.
Given the community response garnered from the incident so far, the statement recognizes that, ” this was definitely an area of shortcoming this year and in the past.”
On the morning of November 4, Brock University President Jack Lightstone published a statement addressing the incident through The Brock News, which supports the students union’s response.
Noting their denouncement of the costumes’ success in the contest and their announcement of equity-awareness promotion, Lightstone says, “I commend and endorse the student union leadership’s stance”. He goes on to discuss those who have criticized the student union for being too politically correct and “humourless” in their response to the incident.
Overall, Lightstone’s statement addresses the lack of “historical consciousness” on part of the four students who wore blackface, and defends the student union’s response not as political correctness, but, “rather, social awareness”.
In a response to inquiries from The Brock Press, Brock Media Relations Manager Jeffrey Sinibaldi stated that, “the University is satisfied that this incident was the result of a lack of awareness, not a lack of sensitivity, and that the participants had no intention of being inflammatory of racially offensive.”
The response goes on to note Brock’s Respectful Work and Learning Environment Policy, saying “the University supports ‘a work and learning culture that values diversity and inclusion, fosters respect, and does not tolerate prejudice, discrimination, harassment and/or bullying.’
This statement also supports BUSU’s response to the issue, calling it “clear and decisive”, and adding that,”University officials are satisfied that BUSU is taking its responsibility seriously and dealing with this in an intelligent fashion that educates people about sensitivities and makes sure this type of incident doesn’t happen again.”
Read the Labour Studies open letter here.
Read BUSU’s full statement here.
Read Jack Lightstone’s statement in The Brock News here.