Because she couldn’t just go as a cat

Law professor’s blackface raises First Amendment concerns

By Sarah Sidlow

Costumes and bad judgment are often the bookend cornerstones of Halloween.

And since 2016 seems to be a hallmark year for bad decisions, it’s no surprise that this was a headline: “Law professor placed on leave after wearing blackface to a party.”

And it wasn’t even in Florida—the land of whacko headlines! In fact, it was a University of Oregon law professor who, ignoring the advice of the university and the university’s Black Student Union to “enjoy the holiday without being extremely offensive,” showed up to a faculty/staff party in blackface.

Other attendees and members of the University of Oregon community failed to see the humor.

“We condemn this action unequivocally as anathema to the University of Oregon’s cherished values of racial diversity and inclusion,” the university’s president, Michael Schill, said in a written statement. “The use of blackface, even in jest at a Halloween party, is patently offensive and reinforces historically racist stereotypes. It was a stupid act and is in no way defensible.”

The University of Oregon professor has apologized and has been suspended with pay, pending an investigation by the Office of Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity determining whether the costume is a violation of university policy, and whether the professor should face serious consequences.

For some, the answer was somewhere between “probably” and “unequivocally yes.”

Fellow law professors—23 of them, if we’re counting—called on their colleague to resign. They said the question of First Amendment free-speech protection was irrelevant in a situation resulting from bad taste, racial insensitivity, and unprofessional behavior. They argue that, as thought leaders and recognizable figures, the ability to exercise sensitivity is a demand of an educator’s job. Failure to live up to that expectation should, then, be punished.

But others argue that the First Amendment is at the very heart of this issue—and that the professor’s free speech, tasteless or not, shouldn’t be hindered at a public university, the purpose of which is to serve as an inclusive harbor for challenging and uncomfortable conversations.

For the record, this isn’t the first time the issue of blackface—with or without the intent to offend—has caused a flurry of bad taste versus protected speech debate.

In 1993, a George Mason University fraternity held an “ugly woman contest” fund-raiser, in which some fraternity members posed as caricatures of black women. A federal appeals court blocked the university from punishing its members, citing that the expression was protected by the First Amendment.

In 2012, for a school presentation depicting historical figures, a white Colorado second-grader wore black face paint in his portrayal of Martin Luther King Jr.; the principal asked him to wash the makeup off his face before he stepped on stage to speak to a crowd of parents. The NAACP supported the principal’s decision, but others thought the school had taken political correctness too far.

In the case of Oregon, the university may have no legal basis to sanction the professor, unless it finds evidence of her failure to adequately perform her work.

In case you were wondering, the professor is a feminist scholar who teaches courses about women and legal issues. “I, of all people, would not want to offend,” she said.

Apparently, the professor’s costume was meant to represent a book, Black Man in a White Coat,” about a black medical student and the racism he experienced in medical school. The author of the book, Damon Tweedy, is a graduate of Duke Medical School and Yale Law School. He is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center.

For more context about this week’s toon, please flip back to Free Speech, pg. 4.

Reach Dayton City Paper forum moderator Sarah Sidlow at SarahSidlow@DaytonCityPaper.com.

 Shame on you

By Tim Smith

A rather bizarre event recently occurred at the University of Oregon. A white law professor attended an off-campus Halloween party wearing blackface makeup. Yes, you read that correctly. In her defense, she said she was raising awareness for a book she wanted her students to read, about a black man’s struggles with racism while attending medical school. She claimed that she was making a point about cultural diversity.

Seriously? She couldn’t have just assigned the book for a term paper?

Naturally, the administration was alarmed, along with a majority of the students. Since the incident, many of her colleagues and students have urged her to resign. The university placed the professor on administrative leave while deciding whether or not she should be sanctioned.

Why is this even up for discussion? It’s a no-brainer. At the minimum, she should be addressed for having terminal poor judgment and required to undergo sensitivity training. Not only were her actions offensive, they cast a bad light on the university itself, along with her chosen profession. Students attend college to get educated and enlightened. They expect their horizons to be broadened and they rely on their teachers to guide the way. It is up to these classroom leaders to set a good example. This incident is no different from spouting racial slurs then justifying it as a civics lesson.

Blackface is defined as a form of theatrical makeup used by non-black performers to represent a black person. The practice gained popularity during the 19th  century and contributed to the spread of negative racial stereotypes. It ended in the United States with the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

In the 19th  and early 20th centuries, blackface minstrel shows were a staple of American entertainment, translating formal art such as opera into popular terms for a general audience. The performers sang and acted while wearing blackface makeup. This was also the standard for many vaudeville performers of that era. Singer Al Jolson made his career on the Broadway stage by performing in blackface. By today’s standards, this would be considered insensitive and insulting.

Blacface carried over into movie musicals in the 1930s and  ’40s. After the Civil Rights Movement took hold, many films of this era that were broadcast on commercial TV stations were heavily edited, if they featured blackface numbers. To this day, if you view the perennial Christmas favorite “Holiday Inn” on commercial TV, usually one of the musical numbers is cut because it features a blackface performance by Bing Crosby.

For a few years early in my career, I taught in a public school. This was in the late 1970s, and we didn’t have written policies telling us how to be politically correct like we do now. It was just assumed that if you were intelligent enough to graduate college and tackle a teaching career, you were obviously smart enough to know the difference between right and wrong behavior. Had I done what this professor did, or told a racial joke in the classroom, I expect that I would have been reprimanded or fired. This fate befell one of my co-workers who became upset with a student and called him an unflattering racial nickname. Can anyone say “career ender?”

Educators are held to a high standard, much like supervisors in the workplace and elected officials. Professional behavior and good judgment are considered mandatory, not optional. I’m not saying that college shouldn’t be challenging, or expose students to some of the harsher realities of life. But there are right and wrong ways to teach these lessons. Looking back on my own college experience, I had my eyes opened to the fact that while people may come from different backgrounds, we are all equal. One thing I learned was “treat everyone with respect.” Another lesson? If I didn’t follow that rule, someone might punch my lights out.

Even today, we are constantly being reminded about the importance of respecting a person’s cultural heritage and not engaging in anything they may deem offensive. Many people have forgotten that in 1993, actor Ted Danson caused an uproar when he attended a Friar’s Club comedy roast for his then-girlfriend, Whoopi Goldberg. He appeared in blackface makeup and delivered a monologue that was liberally peppered with racial slurs, forbidden words, and stereotypical sex jokes. He concluded his act by eating a watermelon. Many of the attendees, including Montel Williams and David Dinkins, were outraged and it took Danson years of penance to make up for his lapse in judgment—not to mention his questionable sense of humor.

It’s a sad fact that racial and civil tensions are running a little higher than usual at the moment, thanks to the uncouth behavior of our president-elect. He may have ridden his racially-charged rhetoric to the Oval Office, but this shouldn’t be interpreted as an excuse for boorish behavior. Hopefully, people will take heed of the Oregon law professor’s antics and think twice about what to wear at next year’s Halloween bash.

Tim Smith is an award-winning, bestselling author. Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Smith at TimSmith@DaytonCityPaper.com. 

Free truth and falsehood to grapple

By Ron Kozar

No one should ever be punished for an idea, least of all at a college.

Back in the day, liberals were liberal. They used to value tolerance and free inquiry.  They used to say, as Voltaire said, that they don’t agree with what you say but would fight for your right to say it. They used to quote Milton, who said truth and falsehood should be free to grapple in an open arena.

But not anymore. Today, their response to speech they find disagreeable is not Voltaire’s or Milton’s response, but Donald Trump’s, “You’re fired.”

Everyone knows liberals can’t take a joke, but the University of Oregon’s treatment of a professor named Nancy Shurtz, who wore blackface to a Halloween party, takes humorlessness to a new nadir. Usually the offender against orthodoxy is a harmless, drunken frat boy or an earnest sophomore seeking to martyr himself for the cause of free speech. Not so with Shurtz. She was by all accounts a loyal stormtrooper in the feminist Gestapo. By painting her face black, Shurtz’s aim was not to get a cheap laugh on a festive occasion but, instead, to make a solemn statement against racism—or something—exactly as liberals are supposed to do when other people want to have fun.

Word is at that no one at the party took any particular umbrage. No one saw the costume as anything but the antiracist gesture she meant it to be. But to read the reaction of the Stalinists who run the U of O, you’d think every last attendee at the party had to drop everything and run straight to the nearest safe space the minute Shurtz appeared in her Ethiopic getup. As a suitably offended journalism professor at Oregon explained, “This country has a long history of racism, and, especially at the university level, people should know what constitutes racism.”

People should know what constitutes racism. And if you think racism is an aversion to others because of their race, then you must be, like, stuck in the 20th  Century or some other age when words still had meanings. Even Shurtz didn’t know what the ever-changing definition of racism covers, despite a chip in her brain that gets software updates more often than Windows 10, with new programming about the latest things that people find offensive.  If Shurtz can’t manage it without a scorecard, then how are we mere mortals supposed to?  We hear tell of a little boy who, given the role of Martin Luther King in a school play, put black makeup on his white skin.  The lad thought an actor playing an historical figure should try to look like that figure. The school principal told him it doesn’t work that way and made him remove the blackface.  If the befuddled boy had seen classmates get away with donning red wigs to play Rapunzel or fake beards to play Lincoln, and had asked what the difference was, his principal’s answer would, no doubt, have been just as useless as the one Shurtz’s accuser gave: People should just know.

Not to be overlooked in all this is the fact that the University of Oregon is a public institution, paid for by the weed-smoking taxpayers of that groovy state. That means the university is stuck with the same annoying restrictions with which all state agencies are stuck, including the First Amendment. You’d think a college, or anyone interested in truth, would like the idea of free speech, but truth is another of those outmoded 20th  Century ideas that smart liberals roll their eyes about at Halloween parties. Their marching orders today are to gauge things not by whether they are true but by whether they are racist. Voltaire and Milton may be useful guides in the search for truth but, to those who look for racism rather than truth, Voltaire and Milton are just dead white males.

When offending someone with a chip on his shoulder gets you fired, the slope gets mighty slippery. You start calling antiracists racists, as the hapless Ms. Shurtz can attest. We see that with all forms of fascism, not just the type they seem to practice at the University of Oregon. When you’re an antiracist with a hammer, everything starts looking like a racist nail. But if racism is a dragon to be slain, firing silly creatures like Shurtz just pushes that dragon deeper into its cave, deeper into hiding. If you want to slay the dragon, you must do it in the open arena Milton spoke of. And to do that, you must let the dragon emerge freely from its lair.

Ron Kozar is a lawyer in Dayton. Reach him at  RonKozar@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Sarah Sidlow
Reach DCP editor Sarah Sidlow at SarahSidlow@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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