'Cosby Show' Blackface: Students on Probation

University of Southern Mississippi sorority girls thought this would be a cute choice for a 1980s party. 

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Six members of a University of Southern Mississippi sorority are on probation after dressing in blackface to depict The Cosby Show's cast at a 1980s-themed costume party last week, the Huffington Post reports. (No word on whether they used varying shades of paint or makeup to accurately depict the multihued family.)

Joe Paul, the school's vice president of student affairs, says the executive officers of the sorority, Phi Mu, and the women involved met on Sunday with a group of African-American student leaders.

Phi Mu National President Kris Bridges says that the matter is being investigated and that more disciplinary action could follow. She says that the local chapter will also sponsor a campuswide program on diversity appreciation. 

Clearly, the university and sorority are taking the upset over this incident seriously, but they might be missing the point. If imitation is the highest form of flattery, it seems as though diversity is one thing the girls who chose these costumes as their best tribute to the 1980s do appreciate. And while we wish more college students would simply let the mantra "When in doubt, skip the blackface" guide their dress-up choices, let's be honest: The act of emulating a much-loved middle-class black family has little in common with the troubling history of blackface itself, or with costumes that have used it to poke fun at ugly and painful stereotypes.  

The Phi Mu members could certainly use a lesson about the sensitive racial territory on which their costumes trod. But black student leaders and others involved in the response should keep in mind that the typical reaction to this type of incident (accusations and punishment, resulting in a played-out public debate about freedom of speech and who's overreacting) misses a chance for students of all races to grapple with the difficult substance of an issue whose complexity extends far beyond the confines of a college theme party.

Read more at the Huffington Post.

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