If you’re on Huff Post’s website you’ll see which headlines of the day are being shared most widely—lots of stuff on Tuesday’s presidential debate, links about ‘Binders Full of Women’, and apparently J-Lo had a wardrobe malfunction. What you might also see is a story coming out of Waverly, NY where a regularly held pep rally included, for audience entertainment, a skit reenacting domestic violence between pop stars Chris Brown and Rihanna.
Weird yet? Add in that this school is predominantly white, as were all the actors, who wore blackface for the skit. Wait for it—here’s the thing that really made my jaw hit the floor—in a pep rally with students (obvi) there were also parents, faculty, members of the media and community in attendance—and no one stopped the skit.
The historical implications of blackface are mighty. This is a theatrical tool which defaulted to (and magnified) stereotypes of African Americans. Racist images from around 1830 through 1950 are indelibly tied to blackface, and if you deign to consider using this medium, you damn sure better understand the history behind it and what it evokes. Blackface is a symbol, and one that has no place in a school pep rally. I’d go so far as to say the only place we should be looking at blackface in schools is in history classes and discussions of race and privilege—which are incredibly important to have, they just don’t belong in a gym while you’re voting for the Mr. Waverly competition.
There’s been some public backlash against the administrators, who approved the skit prior to it being performed, and the student body. Some Waverly residents, and I’m sure some people from all over, are really offended that the skit has been labeled “racist.” There are plenty of folks in online forums less concerned with the blackface and more about abuse being a topic for parody. Others propose we all just lighten up and learn to take a joke.
Here’s what’s not a joke for me: no one stood up to stop the skit. That the student actors were attempting to find a laugh in celebrity news doesn’t offend me. That the news they picked was about a young man beating a young women does. That they chose to bring this story to life by painting their faces black with makeup and wondering why the big fuss makes me stop dead in my tracks.
I can remember my high school pep rallies in a predominantly white town a little bigger than Waverly. I can’t honestly say that my own town is immune to this kind of scene, or that as a teenager I would have been brave enough to stand up and demand we stop the skit. I can say confidently as an adult that we each have a charge to become actively anti-racist, stepping past the discomfort of challenging the status quo, and insisting we stop perpetuating the ‘isms’ that can pop up in places as otherwise harmless as a pep rally.