Black On Campus
Higher Education and the African American Experience

Blackness Visible, Part II

February 7th, 2007 by Ajuan Mance

Blackface on Campus

Partying Students at Auburn University

From a recent Associated Press article exploring the recent spate of racist “gangsta” parties held by white students on U.S. college campuses:

“If you don’t understand why this is harmful to the community, then you need to start asking questions and learn,” Kurt Strasser, the interim dean of the UConn School of Law, told faculty, staff and students at a meeting last week to discuss the party there.

One hip hop insider, Chris Conners, programing director at Columbia radio station WHXT HOT 103.9, said he has no problem with whites imitating certain aspects of black culture — driving cars with flashy rims, for example. But he said students who put on blackface [at Tarleton State and Clemson] or padded their rear ends [at Clemson] crossed the line.

“They weren’t really celebrating hip hop culture. They were making fun of African Americans, and that’s what really concerns me,” he said.’

James Johnson, a black psychology professor at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington who has researched racial attitudes and teaches a seminar on race and prejudice, said he is more discouraged by the rap performers who perpetuate stereotypes than by the “clueless kids” who imitate them.

“In the civil rights movement, you didn’t have blacks who called themselves ‘niggers’ and who called their women ‘bitches’ and ‘whores’ and who glorified being violent and being thugs,” he said. “Now these white kids are kind of confused.”

These parties raise some interesting questions about Black visbility, especially when taken alongside other of campus racism (like the Tufts University students who created and published a racist “carol” that categorizes Black Tufts students as ghetto dwellers with low grade point averages).

All of these incidents — from the gangsta- and ghetto-themed parties to the Tufts anti-affirmative action “carol” — trade on the stereotyped qualities and images associated with the gangsta or thug, a figure who most white students encounter frequently as consumers and fans of hip hop music and culture, but rarely in real life.

While the gangster/thug/pimp enjoys high visibility in the entertainment media — on cable music channels, in films, etc. — the gangster/thug/pimp is a rare anomaly on college campuses. Few of the Black students at Tufts, Clemson, Johnson Hopkins, Tarleton State, or any of the other campuses on which gangsta-themed parties and related incidents have taken place will bear any more than a passing resemblance to the rappers and booty-shaking “dancers” featured on BET, MTV, and Vh1.

Why, then, when white students choose to imitate or depict African Americans, have they so often turned to these contrived and — for the most part — media generated caricatures? The question beneath the question is, quite simply, why do the Black gangsta/thug/pimp characters that appear in music videos and on concert stages seem more real to many white college students than the African American students they encounter on their own campuses?

The Black students that populate U.S. college campuses are not performing carefully constructed characters or caricatures. They are simply going about the daily business of being a student; and yet it is the entertainer’s performance on the stage, on the screen, or on compact disc that is received by so many non-Blacks as representative of real, true, authentic Blackness.

From this question, others follow: What is the nature of Black visbility, if many white Americans only experience as real those representations of African Americans that are developed in collaboration with, approved for distribution by, and disseminated through channels owned by white people?

In the U.S. in particular, does the white majority find suspect any representation of — and, indeed, any performance of — Blackness that white corporate heads, editors, producers, or writers have not had a hand in creating?

Or, on a more cynical note: Given that the average white student has far more encounters — through television, music, sports coverage, and other forms of media — with the figure of the thug/pimp/gangsta than he or she may ever have with real live Black people, and given that these encounters will have likely begun long before that student ever stepped on his or her college campus, can we really expect white students to experience their African American classmates as anything but anomalies?

To this last question, I would answer a firm, yes. Learning the difference between what is real and what is make-believe is a skill mastered in childhood, and therefore I would expect nothing less of white students in their teens and early-twenties. The tyranny of low expectations is as detrimental to the development of race consciousness in white communities as it is to the flowering of academic excellence in Black ones.

Posted by Ajuan Mance

Posted in African American Students, Auburn University, Black Students, Clemson University, Current Events, Gangsta, Higher Education, Hip Hop, O Come All Ye Black Folk, racism, Racism on Campus, Stereotypes, Tarleton State, Tufts University

No Responses

  1. Helina Handbasket

    The willingness of these white students to imitate the most base representations of Black people is quite telling about who they are as thinking citiizens in the academic world.

    If you are a white student who is getting Cs in his/her classes, what better way to make yourself feel less average, less unimportant, less unamazing than to parade around as a Black stereotype.

    And to think some of these ‘students’ of today will be the decision-makers of tomorrow.

    Makes me shudder.

  2. twilightandreason

    Exactly! The Black figues that these students are imitating are those that serve the interests of white supremacy the most. The pimp/thug/gangsta image go a loooong way in helping other non-Black ethnic groups feel superior to African Americans.

    This is especially important for African Americans to keep in mind. It should probably influence the ways that we consume popular culture-based products like cds, mp3s, movies, and DVDs.

    By the way, love your name Helina.