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Hamline blackface costumes prompt investigation

  • Article by: Laurie Blake
  • Star Tribune
  • November 5, 2007 - 1:09 PM

Hamline University has suspended six players from its football team for donning blackface and body paint to dress up as African tribesmen for an off-campus Halloween party, an incident that has sparked a discussion about racial sensitivity at the St. Paul liberal arts college.

The players were suspended last week. On Friday, 100 people attended a campus forum held to discuss the issue.

The university is investigating the incident to find out whether the students violated policy, Hamline spokesman JacQui Getty said Sunday. Two cheerleaders who helped the players with their costumes and reportedly posted photos of them on the Internet social-networking site Facebook with a caption about "spooks" are also under investigation.

Sophomore Tasha Simmons, a friend of the students involved, said the matter has been blown out of proportion and taken out of context. "People misunderstood," she said.

But Samuel Imbo, head of Hamline's African-American Studies program, said he believes it is appropriate for the university to find out "who did what and why they did it."Once we know that, then we can talk about, do you understand why people might receive it the way they did?" he said.

The incident comes at a time of heightened sensitivity about race on Twin Cities campuses. Last week, racist notes were put under the doors of black students at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, prompting an investigation.

In Minnesota and elsewhere, it's hardly the first time students masquerading as blacks has caused controversy.

Early this year, Macalester College in St. Paul condemned an incident where a student in blackface wore a noose around his neck, accompanied by a student dressed as a Ku Klux Klan member, at a campus house party. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is investigating a case of four white students who dressed in blackface the weekend before Halloween to portray Jamaican bobsledders from the movie "Cool Runnings." Last month, four Colorado College hockey players, including two from Minnesota, were suspended after going to a golf outing in blackface to portray characters from the TV show "Family Matters."

Unintended offense?

Imbo, an African immigrant, said it's possible that the students did not understand that painting their faces black might offend someone. "They probably did not know, but they should know," he said. "The offense here is not even being aware of American history. And not knowing this history leads people to do this kind of thing."

Simmons said the costumes -- which included black Under Armour-type clothing and tight black pants -- were creative. "It wasn't supposed to be offensive whatsoever," she said.

Using "spooks" also was not meant to offend anyone, she said. "If you would have seen them, you would have been spooked out. Most [students] don't correlate that term with the '50s," she said. "These are not the sort of people in any way who would discriminate against anyone."

The students are apologetic and hurt that people are suggesting that their motives were racist, Simmons said. "They have friends who are African-American and Native American," she said. "They have diversity in their families."

The university's reaction

Getty said the matter was brought to the university's attention by students upset by the photos on the Internet. In addition, some students had posted them around campus.

The six have not been suspended from school but will not be able to play for the rest of the football season.

On Friday, about 100 people discussed the incident at the university forum. The university's investigation will look into what the intent was, Getty said.

If the investigation finds that a university policy was violated, the students would go in front of a judicial board, where they could get a warning or even a suspension from school, Getty said. She expects the investigation to be finished within the next couple of weeks.

Imbo said he hopes the incident sparks more education.

"They should realize that whatever you do is going to be read in racial or ethnic terms," he said. "It says to me the need for more classes ... so the next time this happens someone will say, 'I took this one class, and this seems an offensive thing to do."'

Laurie Blake • 612-673-1711

Laurie Blake • lblake@startribune.com

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