The issue of racial stereotyping has resounded across the Geneseo campus over the past two weeks, fueled by controversial Halloween costumes which saw students dress up in "blackface," and flyers that criticized a student group's angry reaction to the costumes.
On Saturday, Oct. 28, three members of the Zeta Beta Xi fraternity were seen by students at the IB bar dressed as various black rappers and black personas, including Lil' Wayne and Project Pat. Their costumes featured black paint over their faces.
Many at the packed bar saw the students that night, including one bar employee who was working that night. "It was wrong to do what they did," said the employee, who asked not to be identified. "When you are going to dress in a way that classifies a specific group of people and you make it offensive, that is very wrong."
Following the incident, members of Fighting Against Racial Injustice, a campus group, were outspokenly critical about the event, and posted flyers around campus comparing the costumes to 19th century minstrel shows and calling the actions unacceptable.
"The wearers of blackface participated in a form of entertainment that was geared toward uplifting the white middle class at the expense of the dignity and representation of black people," one flyer said.
The news spread quickly around campus, and soon enveloped many discussions in and out of the classroom.
The students who were accused of dressing in blackface, who asked not to be named, said that they had no intention of committing a racist act, but instead wanted to emulate pop-culture figures. Some of their costumes, they said, were bought at Halloween stores.
One student who dressed in blackface said he respected FARI's take on the issue, saying, "FARI has to do what it has to do, and I respect that."
According to FARI co-founder Tarik Kitson, a senior, the history of blackface is what made the Halloween costumes so offensive. Referring to blackface as a form of entertainment that was geared toward elevating the white middle class at the expense of the dignity and representation of black people, Kitson said, "If you know that history than you know how offensive anything resembling blackface is."
On Tuesday, Nov. 7, the issue took a new turn, as flyers appeared around campus advertising an unofficial new "group," Students Against [groups like] FARI. The flyers criticized FARI's reaction to the Halloween costumes, saying that FARI was "protesting for the sake of protesting," and students should be able to dress as pop-culture figures without being criticized.
It is unknown who posted the flyers.
These flyers, in part, prompted a rally on Tuesday, which occurred outside Erwin. FARI students said the rally was a reaction to several issues, including thug-theme parties and the recent Halloween incident. FARI members asked students to sign a petition at the rally that expressed distress about these happenings.
According to senior Cortez Jones, a FARI member, the purpose of the rally was to apply pressure on the college's administration, which he said has done nothing about racist acts that occur on campus. He said that FARI has informed the administration of thug parties, blackface, and other racist acts that have occurred on this campus for a long time.
"Because nothing has been done, we are now forced to expose the college," Jones said. "We have to protest, recruit outside groups, and bring in the media. We will continue to protest every Wednesday, focusing on all acts of racism, not just blackface and thug parties, which were the Nov. 7 rally's main focus."
Senior Donte Ray, also at the rally, agreed with Jones and highlighted his view on the importance of raising social awareness. "We don't want to punish anyone, but we do want to educate everyone," he said. "SAFARI put their flyers up today and we need to educate people about why their message is destructive so that people understand why we are protesting, and why we believe racial injustice needs to be pointed out and prevented."
Some Geneseo students, like those who posted the SAFARI flyers, believe the attention is unwarranted or misguided.
"What about people dressed up as nerds with big rimmed glasses and pocket protectors?" asked junior Chris DeFelice. "Would people be offended about that? Would action be taken against that? Where do we draw the line? People dressed up as a specific person, a specific rapper, are doing no different than that."
Junior Ashley Opacinich echoed DeFelice's sentiments. "I feel that the issue should not be one of black and white, but rather, overall fairness," she said. "The fact that people are getting worked up over this is good, but I would like to question whether this activism would be as strong if it were Caucasian students being mocked. I would guess no, and that is a sad comment on the state of our culture's sensibilities."
Geography professor James Kernan, who stopped by the protest, agreed with Jones and Ray. Holding a SAFARI flyer in his hand, Kernan said that although the students who dressed up as black figures for Halloween may not have meant anything malicious by their actions, the immediate reaction to their behavior was the creation of a racist environment.
"We don't have to use derogatory terms or beat people up to be racist," Kernan said. "The biggest problem here is apathy and insensitivity. The students who dressed up probably had no desire to be racist, but they did not think about the repercussions of their actions."
One Geneseo student, who asked not to be named, said the students who dressed as black on Halloween were not out to make any sort of racist statement, though they should have realized what consequences their actions might entail.
"It was in bad taste but I don't think the intentions were to hurt anybody," the student said. "They did resemble the rappers."