In a case of bad though likely naive judgment, a white Duke women’s lacrosse player donned black facepaint at a Halloween party hosted at head coach Kerstin Kimel’s house. Worse, this did not seem to raise any red flags amongst University employees, as the photo was later posted to a GoDuke.com blog as part of a recap of the festivities, as penned by one of the student-athletes.
Six days after the photo was posted, the Twittersphere took notice, including members of the media like Bomani Jones, Mike Freeman and Laura Keeley, herself a Duke alum.
By early afternoon, the photo had been scrubbed from GoDuke.com, and head coach Kimel had issued an apology.
This year, some of our costume choices were insensitive and entirely inappropriate. No offense was intended, but that does not matter because we should have realized how these choices would be viewed by those outside of our program. On behalf of our coaching staff and our student-athletes, we apologize to anyone we may have offended and understand while we believed we were making decisions in good fun, we should have been much more sensitive to the implications of our actions.
This reminds me of an incident from when I was the sports editor of the Duke Chronicle. One of our star writers, who incidentally just left his post at Esquire.com for The Atlantic Monthly’s website, drew fire after writing a metaphor that he genuinely intended to describe the length of a particular player’s arms. The metaphor, comparing this player’s arms to those of an orangutan, stung of centuries-old racial stereotypes. Our paper apologized, amid hisses from across the Internet (it was still yet to become the mass media marketplace it is now, sans Twitter).
But we did not stop there. We knew, as Kimel and Duke’s athletic department surely know now, that the offense may not have been intended…and that the offense was real nevertheless. But the real problem is that such mistakes can still be made. I fear that the teaching moment for Duke women’s lacrosse may be lost. This isn’t remedied with an apology and a deleted photo. It’s remedied by understanding why this action–however unintended it may have been–shouldn’t cross anyone’s mind, and shouldn’t be able to pass through the vetting process to publication.
As fate would have it, Duke University libraries is currently hosting an exhibit: “From Blackface to Blaxploitation.” (The image at right is from the exhibit.)
It describes itself as follows:
African Americans have had a long and rather complex history in the American motion picture industry. Early depictions of African American men and women were confined to demeaning stereotypical images of people of color. During the first decades of the 20th century, many films depicted a nostalgic and idealized vision of life in the antebellum South. Memories of the Civil War were still fresh, and these films served as a means for creating some measure of reconciliation between the North and South by glorifying the image of the Old South and its “Lost Cause.” African American characters, in keeping with the dominant stereotypes, were portrayed as incompetent, child-like, hyper-sexualized, and criminal.
I think it would be unfair not to give the Duke student-athlete the benefit of the doubt here and assume that she meant to further these antiquated and wrongheaded stereotypes. And yet, by seemingly not being aware of their existence, she’s opened up an old wound. But this doesn’t have to be a net negative. One hopes the Blue Devil lacrosse team takes a trip to the library and studies up on the history of this unfortunate part of our culture’s past so that we can stop making these mistakes in the present.
We took a similar tack when our star writer published his unfortunate metaphor. If memory serves, he was suspended for a few weeks to allow time for reflection, and to review a few books I checked out for him on the odious history of the metaphor he had drafted.
These are students. They should know better and don’t. And though the Twittersphere doesn’t allow or care that good may come from this bad situation, one hopes this does not become a moment when something is merely swept under the rug, but embraced so that these students–and heck, these adults–can keep moving forward in their understanding of the ripple effects of their actions, and their place in the sequence of things.