|A photo I obtained from someone who had saved it on Facebook.|
The students' eyes have been covered to protect their identity.
The photo shows six girls from the Phi Mu sorority at the University of Southern Mississippi dressed as the Huxtable family from the 1980s sitcom The Cosby Show. They were attending an off-campus 1980s themed costume party for Halloween. When the mother of a student found the image in her daughter’s Facebook feed, she was irate.
But Dean of Students Eddie Holloway admitted that “it is clear these women had no ill intent” and that it was clear “that they had little cultural awareness or competency and did not understand the historical implication of costuming in blackface.”
Despite all that, they’ve been put on probation and will have to engage in some form of diversity training.
|The Huxtables from the 1980s sitcom|
The Cosby Show
The response has been less than pleasant. On one hand, there are people who are immediately jumping to point out that this is just another example of how racist we are at the University of Southern Mississippi. That’s not true. In fact, as a student at Southern Miss, I can attest that ours is one of the most progressive and diverse campuses in the South.
On the other hand, a lot of people — particularly white Mississippians — are enraged that this is even being discussed. They’d like to sweep the story under the rug and pretend it never happened. Of course, that’s not necessarily because they’re racist — it’s because a lot of Mississippians tire of being reminded of our racial history and would like for all traces of it to simply be banished away.
But that’s not reality and it’s a counterproductive response. Until Mississippians are ready to engage race issues and have an open dialogue, we’ll never truly move on from them.
The response, from both sides, has been wrong.
So let’s start with history.
|An example of real blackface.|
Blackface was a form of makeup used in theatrical productions and minstrel shows that gained popularity in the 19th century and continued until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. White performers wore dark makeup — sometimes from burnt cork, greasepaint, or shoe polish — that caricatured blacks with exaggerated features like oversized lips. Performers would often portray blacks as the “happy-go-lucky darky on a plantation.”
That’s obviously not what these girls were doing. The picture doesn’t show any exaggerated features. Actually, several of them look quite pretty and even convincing in their makeup. I don’t believe there was any malicious intent. As Whoopi Goldberg pointed out on The View this past week, it seems they were simply paying homage to one of the first well represented black families on television.
Even Beyoncé, often hailed as an example for young black females, received significant backlash when she darkened her skin for a photo shoot that she said was meant to pay homage to “African Queens.”
I doubt the girls of Phi Mu ever imagined there would be such offense at their Halloween costumes. Because, as the university pointed out, they had little cultural awareness of the history of blackface. That’s not shocking to me. I’ve talked to a lot of people around USM since this incident came to light and many of them simply returned blank stares when I asked if they knew what blackface was.
So instead of labeling them as racists, instead of taking this as an opportunity to chastise Mississippi, and instead of trying to sweep the elephant in the room under the rug, let’s have a discussion. Let’s use it to educate. Let’s use it as an opportunity to see where we really are as a state and as a country on the issue of race. Otherwise, we've wasted our time by giving it any attention at all.