Blackface Halloween costumes, and a lesson in historical consciousness

By Jack N. Lightstone
President, Brock University

Yesterday, on Monday, Nov. 3, I learned in an email from a faculty member of our Labour Studies program of the Halloween costume of several students attending a Brock Student Union Halloween party. Those in the costumes in question depicted the characters from the comic movie of several years ago about a Jamaican Bobsled team.

I am also concerned by the reaction, to both the incident and to the student union leadership’s quite appropriate response, found in comments posted by readers beneath press reports published online by the St. Catharines Standard and Toronto Sun.

The Brock University Student Union leadership has denounced this choice of costume as offensive, and has announced a well-defined program to increase awareness on equity issues. I commend and endorse the student union leadership’s stance.

Too many comments see the student union leadership’s response as more “political correctness” from the from the “lefties” at universities, who, according to these commentators, are simply humourless. I surmise that they do not see the difference between the obviously comic movie that was recalled in the costumes, and the blackface costumes at the Halloween party.

Why was the former funny, and the latter offensive to many? My answer is that historical consciousness makes the latter offensive, and lack of historical consciousness risks insensitivity to the offence given. (I am , after all, an historian by trade.)

After emancipation of the black slaves in the southern United States, social mobility and equality was still denied to blacks, both by law in some regions and by social exclusion in others. One of the economic activities permitted them was as entertainers in “minstrel shows”, often to entertain whites. In the vaudeville era of the earlier 20th century, white entertainers blackened their hands and faces in order to imitate black minstrels, thereby intentionally recalling the social norm that blacks’ roles were limited, and among the roles permitted them was the entertainment of others, including – especially – white people.

I surmise that none of this was on the minds of those at the Halloween party who donned blackface and portrayed themselves as the Jamaican bobsled team. But it should have been, and would have been, had they had adequate historical consciousness.

And to say so is not so much political correctness. It is, rather, social awareness – something our universities have a duty to inculcate among the many other important things we do.

Read more stories in: News