High school students criticized for blackface skit depicting violence against Rihanna, shrug shoulders


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Pep rallies were never really my thing in high school, but at least I only had to worry about uncomfortable bleachers and playing the saxophone poorly. Apparently now racist skits depicting domestic violence are all the rage: At “largely white” Waverly High, students in blackface “reenacted” Chris Brown beating Rihanna at their homecoming pep rally… with the school’s approval. The AP reports:

The skit was one of several pop culture parodies performed Friday at Waverly High School as part of an annual “Mr. Waverly” competition, Superintendent Joseph Yelich said. The one in question had a male student portraying Brown standing over another cowering actor playing Rihanna; a third male student played an arresting officer.

Almost as shocking as the fact that THIS ACTUALLY HAPPENED is that, now confronted with deserved outrage, plenty of students and administrators still don’t get what the problem is. No one seems to have any explanation for the sexism, but recent Waverly grad Chelsea House told CNN that blackface is A-OK because “black is but a color,” which is a shorter (and strangely stilted? right?) way of saying “life is so much easier for people of privilege when you ignore all political context!” Another grad suggested that students might just not have been aware of the history of blackface, but I’m comfortable demanding high schoolers take some initiative to learn about America’s legacy of racism. Perhaps in anticipation of poor student choices, though, all skits had to be vetted by administrators before the pep rally–and the adults who approved this idea certainly have even less of an excuse for not knowing painting your face to try to look like a person of color might not be super respectful.

CNN reports that Superintendent Yelich, who can’t claim youth or inexperience, also figures this was all just a big accident: Yelich “did not believe the students in the skit intended to offend anyone.” To be honest, I really don’t care what was intended. Perhaps the superintendent is another person blaming poor contextual understanding, but it seems, rather, that he’s saying its alright to do racist and sexist things as long as you promise you really meant for it to be tons of fun. I’m pretty sure that’s just called… being racist and sexist.

Also, there are few words I hate as much as “offend” and all of its derivatives. Reframing outrage in response to the skit as expressions of offense, like Yelich does, shifts responsibility from the actors to the “offended”: there’s nothing actually wrong, just all our sad feelings, so if we weren’t so sensitive there would be no problem. And by disguising outright bigotry as simply a problem of hurt feelings, such language obscures the actual harm such an event could (and probably did) cause. How many students in that room have seen or experienced violence in their own families and relationships, and had to sit and watch their peers trivialize that pain? And how many others left the gym confirmed in their suspicion that violence against women, particularly women of color, is just totally hilarious?

The Waverly pep rally seems so outrageous that it’s easy to just file it in the CRAZY SHIT drawer and go on with our lives. But there’s something a little too familiar here. One student excused the blackface with the super weird justification that students “were portraying Hollywood events”–but the event portrayed wasn’t from a movie. It was from a woman’s real life. How often do we remember that when we read and write about Brown/Rihanna drama in gossip sites, or even in feminist publications (and this article)? The Waverly pep rally was inexcusable, but we have to be careful not to slip into observing celebrity violence as though sitting on the bleachers, watching a skit written all for us.

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5 Comments

  1. Posted October 18, 2012 at 11:10 am | Permalink
  2. Posted October 18, 2012 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    “it seems, rather, that he’s saying its alright to do racist and sexist things as long as you promise you really meant for it to be tons of fun. I’m pretty sure that’s just called… being racist and sexist.”
    Bingo. Intention has limits when we discuss effects.

    I’d really love to see more of why you hate the word “offended.” It’s a great thought, and one I’m not sure I’ve had before. Please do write some more about that.

  3. Posted October 18, 2012 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    Great article! More please!

  4. Posted October 19, 2012 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    Absolutely. I still don’t understand how this skit even happened–especially considering the fact that administrators had to have approved the skit. It’s also totally insane that in the aftermath there is no accountability being taken by the administrators involved; and perhaps even more insane, that the board of the school isn’t calling for explanations!

  5. Posted October 20, 2012 at 1:44 am | Permalink

    This piece is so important and insightful. I can’t stand it when people hide behind this ridiculous “it wasn’t meant to offend” excuse. A lot of horrible things were not MEANT to happen. And when people make mistakes, they do not MEAN to do them. And all too often people are willing to accept that as a legitimate excuse.

    The school officials at Waverly prep should be completely and utterly ashamed of themselves, and I believe their position as educators needs to be reevaluated. First of all a “largely white” high school is not an exclusively white high school, so there’s an immediate disregard for some of the students. However, one subtlety that the writer picks up on so perfectly is the concept of belittling racism to people’s feelings. “Jokes” express thoughts, feelings, emotions, and ideologies. This idea at humor allowed people in a highly privileged position to belittle horrific acts they will never have to live through. And the fact the school granted permission to do so simple demonstrates how institutionalized this can become.

    I think this piece highlights so many issues that we face as a society and weaves them together seamlessly. It really is amazing how one act of stupidity can some up so much wrong in our society.

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