Briefly on Smith College’s recent blackface bugaboo

Re: recent events at Smith College, where a female freshman and a friend attended a costume party in blackface, prompting the predictable chain of outrage and condemnation; statements from the students, faculty, and administration; and a flurry of contentious postings on an online forum used by Smith students. An astute if clearly biased culling-together and analysis of the students’ online postings can be found here.

These situations make me highly uncomfortable, I think because there’s little difference anymore in the public’s eye between actual racism–that is, the discrimination or hatred of someone based on his race–and what might be called incidental racism, a racism based entirely on the perceiver’s response. Because there was no malintent on the part of the student who offended–most of the letters to the student body made note of that specifically–I’m not at all comfortable calling what this girl did “racist.” Indeed, it could even be seen as a symptom of the country’s evolving away from racial prejudice, in that the girl is caught between a time when white people would never imitate black people because black people were considered inherently inferior, and a time when most Americans, bound less by ethnicity than nationality, will be able to mock the childish activities and prejudices of their ancestors as a way of bonding as Americans. That is the future utopia implied by all this equality rhetoric floating around today–one with no discrimination, one in which one person who does something will be judged the same as someone else who does that same something–so I don’t know how we can fault a college freshman for outpacing the culture at large in the race toward that utopia. I don’t think that that equalitarian utopia is possible (which is why I’m calling it a “utopia”), but it is to equality rhetoric what the proletariat uprising is to Marxism–a utopia, but an inevitable one. In light of that, I’m also not sure why we shouldn’t place the blame here on equality rhetoric itself, or more specifically on the ways in which it has trained us to think about racial and sexual and other sorts of personal difference. Which is to say that while I don’t agree with all the equality rhetoric, I do think that those who deploy it should be made to recognize that these events are a natural, predictable product of its deployment. But these things take the path of least resistance I guess, and for it’s far easier to indict a college freshman than it is to take a good long look at yourselves as a movement. So we get this sort of draconian imposition of ideology that makes any sort of solidarity next to impossible–and worse, does nothing to purge prejudice.

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