Blackface II: UVA still struggles with incident

It's the story that won't go away. The two UVA fraternities implicated in the now infamous Halloween party attended by three unidentified revelers dressed in blackface have been cleared of all University-related charges.

Besides garnering national and regional coverage from The Washington Post and the Associated Press, the incident has opened a veritable Pandora's Box of questions concerning race relations, social and institutional responsibility, and student self-governance at UVA.

The University's Inter-Fraternity Council acquitted Kappa Alpha and Zeta Psi of charges of disorderly conduct December 2, but called on the fraternities to sponsor internal and Greek system-wide diversity training programs in collaboration with concerned minority groups. The IFC stopped short of issuing any harsher penalties for fear of violating the organizations' Constitutionally protected right to freedom of expression, according to Zach Terwilliger, chairman of the IFC's Judiciary Committee.

"Through the advice of legal council, we found that our bylaws protect fraternities' right to free speech," he said. "We did think of possible stricter sanctions, but unfortunately because of the free speech we could not [issue such sanctions]." Both fraternities were convicted on charges of underage drinking at the party.

The IFC's decision came just two weeks after pictures of a blackfaced Uncle Sam and two men dressed (and painted) as tennis sisters Venus and Serena Williams surfaced on the partypics.com website. The offending images were quickly removed at the request of Kappa Alpha's national headquarters but continued to circulate through the faculty and student body via email, even being reprinted in a number of local news outlets (including The Hook of November 28).

Amid calls from many UVA students that the two fraternities be punished and questions from outside the University community about the legality of any disciplinary action, the IFC launched independent investigations November 25. The student-run governing body did not consider penalties for the three partiers who dressed in blackface, none of whom have spoken with the press or been publicly identified. Asked to clarify the nature of the IFC's request for diversity education, Terwilliger added, "The way I worded it, it was a 'stern recommendation.' It's basically a suggestion."

But John W. Whitehead, president and founder of the Charlottesville-based Rutherford Institute­ a think tank and legal action network concerned with issues of civil liberty and human rights­ warned in a November 25 commentary that such diversity training might mean "a form of coerced deprogramming." Interviewed after the IFC's decision, Whitehead questioned the place of such programs, punitive, mandatory, or otherwise.

"Why do we need sensitivity training? Why not just teach it in the main courses­ anthropology, sociology, and those courses that kids take," he asked. "Why single out a certain section of people and act as if they're being ostracized because they've happened to do something that, by the way, I feel is repulsive and wrong?"

Some have even accused UVA and the IFC of over-reacting in a tantrum of political correctness.

"Is it acceptable for a male to dress as a female character (or vice versa)," wrote University graduate Scott Medvetz in a letter to the Cavalier Daily, "or is that sexism? If I dress as a sumo wrestler, am I discriminating against the obese? Or maybe the Japanese? Can I go [to a Halloween party] as the Lone Ranger, or will my sidekick Tonto be construed as offensive to Native Americans?"

Others have accused the University of unfairly singling this incident out and alluded to a possible "white guilt" complex within the administration.

"I went to Halloween parties every year and saw a wide range of costumes," wrote recent University graduate Adam Kalkstein in a December 4 letter to the Cavalier Daily.

"I saw a 'rabbi' dressed in a black hat with silly-looking sideburns dangling out, mimicking an ancient tradition held by orthodox Jews. I saw 'Arabs' dressed in rags, and even saw Osama bin Laden once. I saw 'Mexicans' with large, fake sombreros and 'Asians' wearing masks highlighting their narrow eyes. Despite these costumes that many could find offensive, the University did not act once."

Although students close to the event have insisted on the playful intentions of the three partygoers, members of the faculty have said this does not excuse or in any way lighten UVA's new burden of collective reflection and considered response.

"A student might wear blackface and legitimately defend his or her right to wear blackface as a matter of free speech," wrote Assistant Professor of English and race scholar Scott Saul in an email interview. "That's not the issue here," says Saul. "What's more surprising, and alarming, is that some students want to ensure that nobody will be offended by the 'joke' of blackface. They want to talk, but don't want to listen with open ears."

This incident follows on the heels of a number of similar flare-ups at southern institutions, including Auburn University in Alabama and the University of Tennessee. Two University of Mississippi students were expelled from the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity last November after appearing in a Halloween party photograph that depicted one of the men, dressed as a police officer, holding a gun to the head of the other who was wearing blackface. (That offending image was also discovered on the partypics.com website.)

UVA officials have throughout acted in their characteristically hands-off manner, deferring to the judgment of the school's venerated system of student self-governance.

"The students dealt primarily with the issue and the concerns that resulted from the actions of these students," said Dean Aaron Laushway, director of the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life. "I believe that they worked to provide a thoughtful and forward-looking response." Pressed on the nature of his position in relation to the IFC and any punishments the administration may have considered, Laushway added, "I have no sanctioning powers whatsoever."

But in recent years the student-run Honor and University Judiciary Committees have both faced lawsuits stemming from decisions made in far less socially explosive situations-­ most notably the 1997-1999 case of Richard Smith, Harrison Kerr Tigrett, and Bradley Kintz, in which the three were expelled, then allowed to attend classes, then ultimately suspended pursuant to the brutal on-Grounds beating of fellow student Sandy Kory. President John Casteen stepped in and suspended Smith, Tigrett, and Kintz after a UJC chairperson and three prosecutors resigned, fearing impending lawsuits.

Asked about the possibility that the University administration makes a point of punting in dicey, potentially litigious cases such as the recent blackface dust-up, Phil Trout, president of the IFC said, "Regardless of whether the University has been using us as a scapegoat of sorts, I feel it's our role as a governing body to take that on, and I was very pleased with the way the IFC handled it."

Trout also voiced concerns shared by many student leaders on Grounds about the blurry line between the University's state-funded administration and the decisions of student groups like the IFC.

"Clearly this issue has brought attention to the fact that maybe we need to better define our relationship with the University and either take a step back from that and create an arm's length relationship that makes it clear that we are not a state agent, which I think would be better, or create a relationship that clearly defines that we are a part of the University," he said.

All this has occurred just as UVA is beginning a review of its undergraduate curriculum. The coincidence has rallied support for mandatory courses in African-American history and racial and cultural diversity at large.

"If this university is serious about its mission as a liberal arts institution," says Saul, "then it needs to sponsor more programs, courses, and community-based collaborations that investigate our country's history around race and the legacy of this history in the present."

But if the University community is to use this incident as what Dean Laushway calls "a vehicle by which we move forward to increased conversation, dialogue, and common understanding," then perhaps it's time we hear the perspective of the three blackfaced partiers themselves. Anyone?