Thursday, January 27, 2011

An Ethical Issue: Blackface

So let's say a group of white students dress in blackface and don dunce caps for a fraternity party. Stupid, offensive, wrong - obviously. There's nothing to argue about here. Now, my question is: should the university punish these students?

On the one hand, these are adults who have decided to entertain themselves in their free time in this insensitive, offensive manner. As stupid as this decision is, it's their decision. Should we be able to police what students do and how they choose to entertain themselves in their time off? Will the next step be to police how the teaching faculty spends their free time?

On the other hand, though, if it was a fraternity party, it was conducted on university property. Should that in any way influence the way in which the university responds to what these students did? If these actions are not punished in any way, it looks like the university is endorsing them. Then again, if we take this attitude, then we are privileging property ownership over people's individual rights.

I really don't know what the right course of action here is. Any thoughts?


Pagan Topologist said...

As a card-carrying ACLU member, I believe that the First Amendment guarantee of free speech applies here. Offensive expression is protected.

Admittedly, if the university in question is a private one, not a public one, the issues may be different.

Clarissa said...

It's a public university. Everything is being kept very hushed for now because nobody knows how to react.

Patrick said...

You sound remarkably like a conservative, struggling with striking the balance between individual and collective rights.

Questions to ponder: Did the students, upon enrolling, agree to a standard of behaviour? That was common when I was a student. You could be booted from University for any private indiscretion which could impinge the reputation of the university.

If the school has no such code, then I guess it's time they instituted it. This relates somewhat to the earlier discussion about 'professional responsibilities'. The students are one of the public faces of the University. Therefore, the university has the right to discipline those who taint that image. Just like the wingnut from Michigan who blogged about the gay student union president.

Clarissa said...

"You sound remarkably like a conservative, struggling with striking the balance between individual and collective rights."

-You are absolutely right. :-) I anger conservatives because on many issues I'm so far to the left that I can't even see Obama from where I am. On other issues, though, I'm so in tune with the conservative agenda that many liberals condemn me passionately.

I think that's a good thing, though. Whenever a person is looking for their own way, for their own worldview, they are bound to arrive at a political stance that will not follow anybody's agenda indiscriminately.

Anonymous said...

What would your university do if those same frat boys/professors/whoever sat out in front of the library with giant posters and "rated" women who walked by on a scale of 1-10? How about a group of white students who felt compelled to shout "Nigger" at black students? What if they decided to wear t-shirts with those drawings of Jews the Nazis used to promote anti-semitic fervor? A university is a place that's supposed to be safe. All these behaviors -- including the blackfact stunt -- are bullying a group of people who don't have the power to fight back, in my estimation. Really, should we protect that?

Meredith said...

As a grad of a private university/law student at the same university, I can most assuredly tell you that if that had happened here (well, that would also assume we allowed frats, which we do not, but say it was a student club meeting on university property), those students would be facing serious charges under our code of conduct. Does your code address hate speech?

Clarissa said...

But you see, they didn't sit in front of the library or come to class this way. They did it in their frat house, which is their place of abode.

Do I have the right to sit at home making obnoxious comments about men I see on television? Can I go to bed in a nightgown with a picture of Hitler?

This wasn't a public action. If it had been, I would have no problem penalizing it. But do we police students inside a space that is effectively their home?

Clarissa said...

" Does your code address hate speech?"

-I'm not sure about that but I'll find out. Now, are the students not allowed to engage in such speech anywhere? Or just on university property? How about if they do it in private correspondence?

Clarissa said...

There is also this: "thanks to a continuing stream of federal court decisions, particularly in the Third Circuit, the argument that college administrators do not know that speech codes violate student free speech rights is increasingly untenable. Earlier this year, in McCauley v. University of the Virgin Islands, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals struck down university policies that absurdly prohibited "offensive" or "unauthorized" signs and conduct causing "emotional distress," noting that a "desire to protect the listener cannot be convincingly trumpeted as a basis for censoring speech for university students."

Anonymous said...

Still, the frat is sanctioned by the university, right? And it's not JUST a home, it's a group home...and, if I remember right, frats are not supposed to discriminate against minorities. What if this happened in the dorms (similar situation)?

Somehow this got to be public, so someone, somewhere, complained. So it was not "private".

The thing is, it's STILL bullying. How do you protect the rights of the most vulnerable? Certainly not by allowing the least vulnerable to prey on them/make fun of them.

Frats aren't allowed to haze their own anymore, so it sounds like now some are choosing to pick on outsiders.

If the frats can't police themselves, I think the uni should shut them down or at least threaten to do so if they don't clean up their acts. I don't believe that it's incumbent on a university to allow fraternities.

Clarissa said...

Yes, I agree about the fraternity being university property. And it also makes sense that the school should take a serious stand on what's going on in the fraternities.

Your comment makes a lot of sense to me, Anonymous.

I'm still trying to figure this out, and your help is very much appreciated.

Clarissa said...

Everybody else's help is appreciated, too, of course.

Meredith said...

Our code supposedly applies off-campus but is rarely enforced unless you're in the immediate neighborhood or something. I don't think the issue of private correspondence is addressed in the code, and it's never been an issue to my knowledge.

We did have an incident where our unofficial satire magazine published a, well, satire issue making fun of the main newspaper whose April Fool's issue was full of racist jokes and the school took the satire mag literally as well. They didn't punish any of the students involved, but there were "community meetings" to discuss said "hate speech." I think you can tell where I stand on this issue. (Which is, the satire mag did nothing wrong; the racist jokes were wrong but got exactly proper punishment, which was a huge student boycott of the paper and campuswide uproar.) I also just Googled certain terms from this paragraph and realized you can now figure out exactly what my alma mater is, *grin*.

Tom Carter said...

This is an easy one, in my opinion. If it was done in their house for their own amusement and it didn't otherwise break the law, then leave them alone. Even the most offensive speech has to be tolerated if freedom of speech is to mean anything.

Freedom of speech also allows for the possibility that fools will make fools of themselves. Let them do it; they're easier to identify that way, and we can all avoid them.

Rimi said...

That's a fine sentimen, Mr. Carter, but I'd say this was actually rather a tough one.

This is simply because when 'protective' laws are framed, they're usually framed in certain social and cultural contexts. But then those contexts change, or the laws are applied to a different group that don't fit those contexts, and the judiciary, or even local authority, is under no obligation to follow the spirit rather than the word of the law when judgeing/analysing them. And thus social injustice is legally served.

There can any number of distressing alternatives to what the boys here did. Men of colour -- and I do not necessarily mean only African Americans -- might've made their female guests wear blonde wigs, lighter shades of make-up and what passes for "revealing" attire. Gender, race, and sexual objectification. Would all women and some white people be offended? Would the men be let off because they come from repressed and horribly exploited people? How would people react if women -- of all available races -- made their male guests dress like the dashing Latin stereotype and cater to them? Would that be seen by certain self-identified 'feminists' as 'empowering'?

If residences and abodes were inviolable, then all domestic violence and most child abuse laws should be repealed this very minute. And I'm fairly sure people who have sex with young people don't do it to torture their souls, they do it because they like it. In other words, for their own amusement. So those two parameters, taken at face-value, wouldn't seem very comforting if universally applied. And from your thoughtful comments elsewhere, I think you realise this.

I would personally prefer the university to officially reprimand the students for violation of uni codes on uni property. They are WELL within their rights to do so. They might issue a statement of apology for hurt sentiments and criticise the students publicly, but I think the boys should face no further disciplinary action -- and I say this as a woman of colour -- but should not be protected from the verbal, and verbal only, expressions of contempt relating to this incident their peers and even their faculty might want to indulge in.

Rimi said...

All of my recommendations, of course, fall firmly within the freedome of speech. If someone is being a bigot or merely a silly fool, I believe I reserve the right to call them that.

Brittany-Ann said...

When I was at university, I was an RA, and it was up to me to enforce rules in the dorm-students weren't allowed to smoke or drink, couldn't have burner plates, and they had to be considerate of their roommates. So while having your significant other overnight was allowed, if your roommate was uncomfortable with that, and you disregarded their feelings, it was a problem. We had to strike a balance, as both roommates paid for the room, and both had a right for visitors and to be comfortable in their own room-but not so much as one could veto the other. You sacrifice the ability to do whatever you want in university housing, and you know that from the beginning.

Further, Greeks have a whole, complex, intricate code of behavior for their members-anything that might make the greek community look bad is usually prohibited, though not all of them enforced unless you anger the Rules committee chair. The best course of action here would be to direct the complaints to the director of greek life (whatever university employee oversees the soroities and fraternity). The boys would likely be suspendee from greek activities, perhaps lose their room in the Frat house (those rooms are highly sought after, as there are likely more members than rooms in the house), or maybe thrown out of the frat. They take infractions seriously in the greek community-they have an image to maintain, and it's dammed expensive to become a member. As a side note, the fraternity might be paying for their housing. If they're on a university scholarship, I'd say the university has ground to punish actions unbecoming of a student the school chose to sponsor.

fairykarma said...

Lots of black women try to look white. Doesn't help that Oprah and Tyra perpetuate the whole white mimicry.

Asians try to look white by paying someone to butcher their eyes to remove the fold.

All types of girls imitate that weird cute Asian girl look.

A few drunk white guys paint their faces satirically black and they're suddenly offensive and racist.

This saddens me, because it tells me that people subconsciously think black people are so ugly, it's offensive to mimic their looks. Who in their right minds would be offended at people who mimic something beautiful? Even a bad mimicry of something beautiful is fine. Am I crazy in thinking blacks are not at the top of this imagined cultural beauty hierarchy that people seem to have in their heads?

True racists are often not the vocal expressive kind like frat boys. Seriously? What do you expect from frat boys? The people who punish the frat boys are the ones I'm afraid of. The more severe the punishment, the more afraid I am. Because it's as if the administrators are saying, "You boys are going to give away our real thoughts on minorities, so we have to punish you extra good so as not to give ourselves away." But an extreme punishment DOES give it away.

I despise racists who hide their feelings. I like it when a person expresses their racist comments, because that means that person has the courage to put up their real feelings up for debate and even be proved wrong. A person who doesn't even have the decency to put their hateful thoughts up for debate is downright dangerous. These frats boys will learn. Latent racists will never learn or change. They've already made a firm decision about their prejudice. I just think we're focused on the wrong thing here.

If I stereotypically costume myself as a Latin or Asian or Black or Arab or Black, So what? Didn't you all enjoy Tropic Thunder?

Clarissa said...

Blackface is not about mimicking lck people per se. It's a tradition of theater that presented black people as stupid and pathetic.

I agree with everything else you say, though. I'm still not sure what to think of the entire thing. There are good arguments on both sides. Today, for example, a colleague mentioned that since we are a state school, everything we do is seen as government policy. And the US Constitution is very vocal on the issue of freedom of speech.

Clarissa said...

I don't know what Tropic Thunder is, though.