Despite condemnation from several Canadian news outlets and its president, Brock University did not have plans to discipline four students who dressed in blackface and won a Halloween costume contest because they allegedly weren't trying to be racially offensive. A spokesman for Brock, in St. Catharines, Canada, told the Toronto Star that the participants experienced "a lack of awareness, not a lack of sensitivity."
Four men used makeup to cover their faces and attended a party at Isaac's Bar and Grill, which is in the university's student-alumni center, CTV News reported. They won $500 for their costumes: the 1998 Olympic Jamaican bobsled team.
â€” CBCHamilton (@CBCHamilton) November 5, 2014
The costumes gained media attention once an open letter penned by three Brock professors and a student representative posted to the Brock Labour Studies Facebook page Monday. Blackface minstrel shows had a history in Niagara, where they were aimed at white tourists until the 1950s, the authors said. Blackface was associated with a legacy of white supremacy and institutionalized racism. "Students, staff and faculty at Brock University need to understand that such costumes are not 'just a joke,'" they said. "Regardless of the intent or motivation of the students in question, donning blackface for Halloween is never OK; it is racist, full stop."
Because the costume contest took place in the Brock University Student Union's pub, its parent organization took responsibility for the incident. Its president, Rolland Erman, told the Toronto Sun the costume contest was decided on the crowd's applause. Still, the staff was taking steps to ensure nothing like it would happen again. "I don't think it was an issue of anyone being malicious at all," he said. "But that doesn't mean we aren't aware of the seriousness and magnitude of this."
The student union planned to implement harassment and diversity training for more than 200 people, according to a statement. Supervisors were scheduled to appear at all contests, and new rules mandated students be vetted before being presented to the crowd.
Brock President Jack N. Lightstone commended the union's decision in a statement. He also called out Internet users who had commented on media reports about the blackface incident. "Too many comments see the student union leadership’s response as more 'political correctness' from the 'lefties' at universities, who, according to these commentators, are simply humourless," Lightstone said. "I surmise that they do not see the difference between the obviously comic movie that was recalled in the costumes, and the blackface costumes at the Halloween party."
Lightstone placed the blame on a lack of historical consciousness. Although the students were likely not thinking about the implications of dressing in blackface, they should have been. "And to say so is not so much political correctness," he said. "It is, rather, social awareness -- something our universities have a duty to inculcate among the many other important things we do."