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.

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

Washington, DC

Alexandra Brodsky was a senior editor at Feministing.com. During her four years at the site, she wrote about gender violence, reproductive justice, and education equity and ran the site's book review column. She is now a Skadden Fellow at the National Women's Law Center and also serves as the Board Chair of Know Your IX, a national student-led movement to end gender violence, which she co-founded and previously co-directed. Alexandra has written for publications including the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Guardian, and the Nation, and she is the co-editor of The Feminist Utopia Project: 57 Visions of a Wildly Better Future. She has spoken about violence against women and reproductive justice at campuses across the country and on MSNBC, ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, FOX, ESPN, and NPR.

Alexandra Brodsky was a senior editor at Feministing.com.

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