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Feb 28 2011

As in all things, context is key

I don’t usually double-post on Mondays (I find it uncouth), but there was so much to talk about this week that I felt it necessary to hit you with two shots of the good stuff every day this week (don’t worry, Friday is still for movies only, and I have a great one for you this time around).

If I can, I will commiserate with my conservative brethren for a moment: it is often incredibly difficult to know the right thing to say when discussing race, and sometimes people’s reactions can seem overly sensitive. The fact that their reactions always seem overly sensitive to you is because you haven’t bothered to try and understand why, but that’s your issue to deal with. Two stories came to my attention this week that I thought were good illustrations of when even your humble narrator found it difficult to pick a side.

Beyoncé raises some eyebrows with her makeup choice

For the 90th anniversary of French fashion mag, L’Officiel Paris, Beyonce Knowles appears in a pictorial which pays tribute to an “African Queen” theme. More specifically, Knowles channels Fela Kuti, a Nigerian musician and human rights activist who supposedly inspired the music on her upcoming album.

Is this going where you think it is?

Ayup!

Beyoncé has dressed in what could accurately be described as “blackface” for a photo shoot. Now as I’ve said before, blackface has a history in the United States that is connected to buffoonery and the outright mockery of black people. It would be incredibly difficult to make that connection here – Ms. Knowles is going out of her way to pay tribute to the cultural history of Nigeria, which is about as far from mockery as you can get. She is also simultaneously wedding dark skin with the idea of beauty and power – a positive image, especially considering the dearth of dark-skinned models of colour in fashion today. It would be ludicrous to accuse her of “blackening up” in the same tradition of a minstrel show.

However, there is another side to this issue. Firstly, Ms. Knowles is fair-skinned, a fact which has earned her her fair share of criticism. With her straightened hair (often dyed blonde) and her status as a sex symbol, Beyoncé’s image is that of having “good hair” and “good skin”, which does no favours to her dark-complected sisters. After the shoot is over, Beyoncé gets to wash the makeup off and reclaim her status as being light-skinned (and anyone who thinks that doesn’t make a difference is woefully out of touch). It is not so for someone whose skin is naturally that hue – they’re always dark. Additionally, it is not necessary to the shoot that Ms. Knowles darken her skin – the image could be conveyed just as convincingly with the cheek makeup and the clothing. The makeup seems completely extraneous, and suggests to me that she is trying to convey some kind of additional message about dark skin. What that message is is subject to interpretation, and I will not speculate.

Professor retires over racial remarks

A longtime Murray State University professor has decided to retire after referring to slavery while making a point about tardiness to two black students last semester, the school said Friday. “I did say, ‘Do you know why you were late? There’s a theory that a way to protest their master’s treatment was for slaves to be late.’

The newspaper reported that according to Johnson’s official complaint, when she asked (professor) Wattier what he meant, he replied: “It is part of your heritage. The slaves never showed up on time to their owners and were lashed for it. I just don’t have the right to do that.”

Yeah… that was a stupid thing to say. The original remark was bad enough on its own, but the elaboration was the nail in the coffin.

As with the “blackface” issue above, this is one of those situations in which context is crucial. I do not doubt professor Wattier’s assertions that he is not a dispositionally racist person. Testimony from his colleagues reveals him to have many connections to the black community stretching back many years. However, the fact remains that a while professor comparing his black students to slaves and lamenting his inability to humiliate and punish them in the way that their ancestors (possibly – the students may not have had slaves for forebearers) would have experienced is inexcusable.

It’s remarkable how easy it is to bring the pain of historical mistreatment to the surface. One misplaced word, an off-hand comment, an inadvertent (or completely innocently-intended) reference can expose the scars of the past almost instantaneously. It is for this reason that I continually go out of my way to extend the benefit of the doubt to those who say racially insensitive things. However, I will not excuse that ignorance, nor will I ever let an opportunity for education pass. I certainly have no interest in “calming down” or “getting over it”, as is the common refrain whenever anyone points out the effect of unintended or historical racism. We all make mistakes – it is those who are willing to learn from them that will make sure they become more rare.

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2 comments

  1. 1
    Howie

    Wow. “It’s part of your heritage”?? You would think a professor would have known about the possible affect of that remark. With that one sentence removed he could have possibly talked himself out of it. Just a poorly chosen metaphor equating students as slaves not black students as slaves.

    As for Beyonce… I don’t feel comfortable with it. Is this a kind of re-appropriation similar to what’s been done with the “N” word? The thing with the “N” word is that black people are all in on it. At least African Americans are. They can’t wash it off. With black face, you can put it on, make your statement and then go back to being a light skinned black person.

    Anyways thanks for the piece.

  2. 2
    Crommunist

    It really makes you wonder, but if my analysis of the situation (admittedly with nearly no information) is anywhere near correct, it does show that even people with seemingly no racial prejudices can have all kinds of stuff bubbling away just below the surface. It’s when we fail to be truly self-critical that those kinds of things lay dormant for long stretches of time, only to come out in bizarre ways.

    Then again, he could have had long-standing issues with these students before, he could have been having a bad day, it could have been a fragment of an inside joke with another member of the faculty… lots of possible explanations.

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