Blackface on College Campuses Isn't About Freedom of Speech; It's About White Supremacy

Fan at University of Wisconsin-vs.-Nebraska game Oct. 29, 2016, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison
Twitter Screenshot
Fan at University of Wisconsin-vs.-Nebraska game Oct. 29, 2016, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison
Twitter Screenshot

It’s Halloween, so put on your seat belts, brothers and sisters, and get ready for an onslaught of racist Halloween costumes coming from white college students who think your humanity is fair game for chuckles. The blackface paint will flow as white students think that smearing it on, along with a sign that says, “Black Lives Matter,” is the most hilarious thing they can do. And when they get caught, and suspended by their universities, they’ll all proclaim, “I had no idea it was racist!” Don’t be bamboozled, my friends.


You see, blackface on white college students is as much white supremacy standard operating procedure at Halloween as a Donald Trump fanatic yelling, “Lock her up!” When I was writing my book about campus racism, Blackballed: The Black and White Politics of Race on America’s Campuses, I was able to hit the archives of hundreds of predominantly white colleges and universities, and I found that there have been white students as early as the 1840s, and continuing through the 20th century until today, who have made it a point to use blackface to denigrate African Americans. Within predominantly white fraternities and sororities, hosting racist theme parties, where white students dress like stereotypical blacks, Latinos and Asians, happens every Halloween, even as universities make concerted efforts to educate these students about why they shouldn’t do it.

And yet, as the offensive depictions of minorities flow from Instagram, Snapchat and other social media platforms, there will be those who rise up and shout, “It’s all about freedom of speech and the First Amendment,” as though the Bill of Rights were a “Get Out of Racism” card to be played.

What’s ironic is that while these people will bend over backward to note that racists (and that’s what I call any white college student who puts on blackface. Don’t like that tag? Don’t put on blackface) have the constitutional right to offend, they’re typically silent as a church mouse when it comes to people of color exercising their own freedom of speech. The hypocrisy of Americanism means that a Colin Kaepernick, who kneels before the flag as a challenge to America to be better, to be more just, is held up as a point of ridicule, whereas the racist just melts back into society.

And we see it today. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, someone decided that he’d dress up as President Barack Obama in a prison uniform with a noose hanging around his neck. The idea? Lynch the first African-American president. It’s the most common, almost clichéd exhibition of white supremacy on college campuses. Remember that two Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity members at the University of Oklahoma sang about lynching African Americans before letting them into their fraternity; and the James Meredith statue at the University of Mississippi is regularly targeted with nooses.

But what’s disturbing about the University of Wisconsin picture isn’t just that some racist decided that lynching black people was funny. It’s that the white people in the frame of the picture say and do nothing, which is reminiscent of so many pictures of real lynchings, where ordinary white people either smiled for the cameras or impassively bore witness to a horrific murder and felt nothing. These white fans in the University of Wisconsin stands apparently felt nothing. They didn’t point. They didn’t object. They just stared ahead. And that’s more troubling than the costume itself.

Lawrence Ross is the author of the Los Angeles Times best-seller The Divine Nine: The History of African American Fraternities and Sororities. His newest book, Blackballed: The Black and White Politics of Race on America’s Campuses, is a blunt and frank look at the historical and contemporary issue of campus racism on predominantly white college campuses. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.