On any given Saturday it’s not unusual for a camera to pan a stadium full of fans and land on a group that has covered in body paint in their school’s colors. This body painting practice is ubiquitous and was probably never given a second thought until a few Arizona State University students showed up to support their football team in all black everything.
A couple writers have touched on the subject but it has gone otherwise unnoticed. Are these students simply supporting their school or is this another instance of the minstrel tradition showing its face on our college campuses?
Sure, it’s likely that these students were simply showing their support for their school but sometimes it’s not the intent that matters, it’s the perception. If some Black people are too sensitive as it relates to matters of race, it’s only because the history of race in this country requires a certain level of sensitivity. The majority has the (un)fortunate privilege of being shrouded from painful racist imagery and therefore do not or cannot understand when their actions are damaging. Black people do not have the privilege of removing blackface (or any resembling images of it) from its historical context. Just because we keep telling ourselves we live in a postracial society, doesn’t make it true; unless the idea of a postracial society is to remove the responsibility of racial sensitivity from the majority.
The overwhelming response to people who have raised questions about the four students at Arizona State is that they are being overly sensitive. Would the backlash be so strong if students had painted themselves white in a whiteout? The simple answer is that we don’t have to imagine that situation. This country has no history of racism, mockery and degradation based on performers painting themselves in whiteface and acting out stereotypes.
I am reluctant to label this incident or the girls who painted themselves in black paint as racist. However I can understand how tough it is to remove the racial filter. Dr. Boyce Watkins posits that racism and racial sensitivity are learned practices and while he points the finger of failure at Arizona State, we have to view this on a larger scale and say that thus far, this society has failed on both accords. And that is why some may have perceived this incident as more than just four students painting themselves in their school’s colors. And why those four students never considered what their actions might have meant to others.