Apologies, protest mark more blackface fallout

Reactions to Geneseo students dressing in blackface Halloween costumes continued through the past week, with a condemnation from the college president, another FARI protest, a planned dialogue to address the issue and a letter of apology from some of the students who dressed as black figures.

On Tuesday, senior Aaron Hagele and juniors AJ Krokenberger and Dillon Meier sent a letter of apology to TV station WHEC, NBC News 10, which had run segments about the controversy.

"Our actions were not out of malice or racial hatred, but were simply poor judgment on our part," the letter said. "We dressed up with no intention of offending anyone or perpetuating any racial stereotypes."

The Zeta Beta Xi fraternity members said that while they had dressed as black rappers, a student not affiliated with the fraternity had dressed in minstrel blackface and that this student's photograph in particular has been at the forefront of the controversy. Still, the men stated they would not have dressed as hip-hop artists had they better understood the historical implications of blackface.

The letter did not identify the student who dressed in minstrel blackface.

"We extend our sincere apologies to anyone offended by our actions," concluded the letter, expressing a hope that the Geneseo community will work to facilitate learning and education about the issue and black culture in general.

Since the controversy began on Oct. 26, the administration has taken several measures to address the concerns of Fighting Against Racial Injustice, an on-campus organization not yet officially recognized by the college, that has been highly critical of the administration's response to the group's claims of racially-motivated incidents at Geneseo.

On Nov. 8, President Christopher Dahl sent an e-mail to the Geneseo community addressing the blackface issue. "I too am disappointed and angered by the actions of these students," the message stated.

Dahl wrote that although the students accused of wearing blackface cannot be punished under college policy because of a Constitutional right to free expression, he asked for repudiation of the actions and that the college work to promote education about the acts and why they are offensive.

In an immediate response to the issue, the administration has decided to co-sponsor an open forum on Friday, Nov. 16 from 2 to 4 p.m. in Newton 202. As part of the event, students will break up into smaller discussion groups moderated by facilitators to discuss the many perspectives that have been raised in the past two weeks.

On Wednesday, Nov. 14, FARI held a protest outside of Erwin Hall to raise awareness not just about the blackface incident but also to call for better recruitment of student and faculty minorities. The protesters also requested that the administration consider changing the undergraduate curriculum in a way that will further education about diversity.

"America is not a British colony anymore. Diversify the curriculum," read one sign. Approximately 60 students, faculty and community members attended the protest, which was covered by local media outlets including WHEC.

"This is not just a problem at Geneseo," English professor Beth McCoy said at the protest. Holding a sign that put Geneseo in the same category as Harvard and other Ivy-caliber institutions, she claimed that minority groups in many colleges across the country are witness to racial injustices going ignored and unpunished.

Administration members said they were supportive of the event, which FARI members have pledged to continue holding every Wednesday.

"It's important for communities to take stands on issues they feel are important," said Vice President for Student and Campus Life Robert Bonfiglio. "Some of our students dressing up in blackface was offensive to other students, and it's important that their voice be heard," he said.

President Dahl said that he shares FARI's sense of frustration and wishes the college could legally do more to condemn the behavior of those who donned the costumes. Dahl described the behavior as "abhorrent" and in conflict with all of the college's goals.

"We need to be clearer in saying, 'this is racist,'" he said.

According to Dahl, the college is actively working to improve minority recruitment and curriculum revision, but he asked the question, "Are we serious enough and effective enough?"

He noted that since 2001, the percentage of Geneseo professional staff that is of color rose from 7.8 percent to 12.7 percent, and that 24 percent of faculty and staff hired in the past year have been of color. Still, he hopes that minority student recruitment and curriculum diversification will happen faster and be more visible on campus.