I could say a lot about the project of Blacker Face as a band, but the anti-racist, pro-black message of this band is not actually the object of debate for most people concerned about the decision of WVKC to invite this band to campus. The debate is primarily about two things: the name of the band, and the visual presence of the name of the band on posters around campus. Because these are the debated objects, I will write about them; if you would like to read about Blacker Face and their music, I would recommend their write-ups at post-trash.com and Afropunk. Music videos for their songs My Life Matters and Tantric Suicide are available online, as well as videos of the band’s live preformances. I feel that, in investigating these musicians, it would be difficult to assert that the band is not pro-black, or that they are unconcerned with racial justice; this project includes white performers, but was created by, named by and is led by black musicians. That being the case, I will continue with the presumption that there is, generally speaking, an agreement about this material aspect of the band.
A group of students communicated directly with WVKC about their concerns regarding the now cancelled Blacker Face show, and mainly about their feelings towards the name of the band being seen on posters which WVKC created and posted around campus. They sent an email to a member of WVKC, which outlines their concerns. At the time of writing this column, this letter can be read in its entirety where it is publicly posted on WVKC’s board in Seymour Union; the message was signed by six students. In this message, the concerns of the group of students represented by these letter writers are summarized:
Blackface was used as a tool of oppression to demean and mock black lives and culture, and the lack of consideration in putting this event on shows black students this campus isn’t a safe space for them. Since events have to be approved on many levels, my only question is why weren’t black students asked of approval for an event that is titled with such a negative but significant part of their history? And the fact that it wasn’t, truly shows how inconsiderate those in positions of power can be. It is disheartening to see something of this nature be deemed “appropriate” by students and faculty.
The group of concerned students are, as far as I am able to understand, not acting as members of a campus club; however, many of the students who began this effort are members of ABLE. Members of MEChA, and Lo Nuestro, as well as other members of our community, in addition to the six students undersigned on the message to WVKC, attended a meeting recently with the intention of airing their concerns with WVKC. What the concerned students have alleged is that the posters WVKC put up to adversize Blacker Face’s show were racially insensitive and disturbing, and exist in a larger context of racial inequity and discrimination which specifically affects black students on our campus, as well as the greater context of a history of racial discrimination in the United States and elsewhere. I am not interested in litigating the feelings or experiences of these students; it would be stupid and cruel for me or anyone else to claim that the feelings of these students are meaningless or in any way false, and that is not what I set out to do. I do want to discuss black freedom of expression, and I would like to expose what I see as problems with the way in which Knox’s professional staff have involved themselves in this dispute. I feel that Knox as a community should work to cultivate and protect black freedom of expression, and that the professional staff of our college should reevaluate their role in supporting and protecting the black community on this campus.
During this meeting between WVKC and the members of our community concerned and hurt by the Blacker Face posters on campus, several points were raised about how the booking and advertising of this show could have been handled differently. It has been argued by those opposed to this concert that the posters on campus should have been accompanied by context; perhaps an explanation of what the band’s message is, what their intentions as artists are and so on. I think this is a good idea. From what I understand, not knowing who the band is, or what their intentions are, caused the name Blacker Face to be read as expressing a hateful or ignorant sentiment; including this information could have avoided this harm. It would have also perhaps elicited interest from students who would want to hear a pro-black, anti-racist punk band on campus.
Another suggestion is that clubs such as WVKC approach a group of students of color (perhaps a cultural organization or MSAC) in the future for approval of their events. I feel that this suggestion is well-intentioned but ultimately wrong-minded, and that this process would be harmful to the goal of promoting freedom of speech and expression for black people. Allow me to explain why:
Black people do not agree on everything – clearly. This is something we’ve all heard before, but I think it is something that we should all think on again, internalize and accept: black people do not agree on everything. Black people have serious disagreements with each other, and these disagreements are not always easily resolved. Some of these disagreements are located outside of the explicit category of blackness; there are disagreements among black people about gender and sexuality, religion and government. But there are also disagreements among black people about what it means to be black, and what positive or negative self-expression of blackness looks like. These disagreements are often most complicated when they surround works of art created by black people.
Black people all react to the art created by black people differently because we are all different; further to that point, black people create different kinds of art because we are all different. This difference is something that should be protected, and I feel that none of us – black or not – should be afraid of it or seek to keep it out of our community. Establishing an official campus system which allows one group of students to decide for all of our campus what the nature of “appropriate” black expression will be could create a hurdle to the freedom of expression that is vital to the development and celebration of black culture. Black artists at Knox, be they from within or without our community, deserve freedom of expression.
There is no single group on our campus representative of the totality of every black person in our campus community, and the views of one group do not reflect the views of every black person in our community. I would have to imagine, although I do not know intimately, that even within clubs such as ABLE, QTPOCC, Sisters of Excellence and Harambee there are disagreements about what it means to be a black person and what a black person should or should not do. These disagreements can be productive if we welcome them with care and understanding. If we do not welcome ways of expression that differ from our own, it becomes impossible for our perspective on being black to grow and to change.
I will stake this claim: it is possible that there is nothing wrong with a black person deciding to name their band Blacker Face, and there is nothing wrong with black students feeling upset and hurt by the band’s name being seen around campus. The material aims of Blacker Face, I will reiterate, are not against black people, and Blacker Face as a band does not come from outside of the black community. The issue is with the name of the band, and how it has been interpreted or could be interpreted. This is a debate over black freedom of expression; this is an issue about our common values and how they are expressed publicly. This group of students has decided that a pro-black, anti-racist punk band is not welcome on campus, because of the way that they name themselves. That opinion is just as valid as mine against it. Our community’s values change over time, and will be decided by all of us who are part of this community. So I will ask this question –– not rhetorically–– and reframe the discussion: Is Knox to be a community where only certain kinds of black expression are welcomed?
As my second point, I would like to question not what decision was made about this show, but the way in which our mainly white administration has gone about resolving this disagreement about the expression of people of color. This is a conflict where black students are ultimately disagreeing with the expression of a black artist. That is the nature of this dispute, in its essence.
Andrew Salemi, Anne Ehrlich, and Eleanor Kahn were the only administrative staff who attended a recent public meeting about this dispute; I should note, however, that I do not know who was invited to the meeting, or why others did not attend. All three of these people are not black. They wrote in an email, “our office’s decision to approve this event absent intentional, meaningful dialogue with the black community is unacceptable. We recognize that our actions hurt members of the black community, and for that we are sorry.”
I will not go so far as to say that the fact that these members of the staff are white prevents them from dealing with this conflict effectively – someone else can argue that. What I will say is that I think these people, as well as other members of the administrative staff, regardless of their race, should be more willing to take an active role in race-involved disputes at Knox, and that they should be very critical of the actions they choose to take as people in positions of power. Acknowledging white privilege is not a passive action; it is not silence and agreement. It requires more critical thinking than that, and it requires more action.
When I say “passive,” I am referring specifically to the decision of Campus Life to not take a role in mediating this conflict any way, their decision to take less of the blame for this incident than WVKC has and their decision to charge this group of concerned students with working out this conflict with WVKC on their own.
Campus Life did the right thing by hearing and acknowledging the pain of the students affected by this issue; I don’t mean to say that they’ve done the wrong thing. I only wish to encourage these staff members to think more critically about their role as people in positions of power over this dispute, and the role that they place black students in by behaving in a manner that is passive rather than active.
In the end, the Campus Life office is the body at this college that authorized this show. They knew about this show for months, and were in a position to raise concerns about it, as they have indicated that they feel they should have. They are the professionals; they signed the checks. I do not feel that their whiteness is an acceptable excuse for not behaving cautiously about this show, which could have created controversy among black and white students. I do not feel that their whiteness renders them unqualified to intervene in this dispute any further. But this is what they have done; they apologized over email, and they are allowing this group of concerned students to clean up the rest of the mess in whatever way they see fit.
I feel that it is not a sign of respect from members of our administration to allow black students to deal with this issue themselves. They are not acknowledging their privilege through that action. They are passing the buck to unpaid undergraduates. White students are not asked, once or twice a year, to mitigate problems affecting white students, but often in my time at Knox, students of color have been called upon to deal with some controversy or another. We should not have to interrupt our education to deal with these kinds of conflicts first-hand; this is an undue burden to place upon us. A third party should intervene and manage these conflicts separately. The input of students should be considered and have a serious role, of course, but it should not be a student’s responsibility to control this entire process.
All students, regardless of who we are or what we believe, are vulnerable to harm in a conflict where no neutral party steps in to mediate. It is more difficult and harmful for us students to be asked to work out all of our issues informally, and with no oversight, guidance or assistance. Allowing disputes to be handled in this informal way, especially when it comes to disputes about racism, places a burden on already marginalized students. It also creates a great liability that decisions about groups of students found to be in the wrong in any given dispute will be treated irregularly: perhaps too harshly, perhaps without a reasonable consequence. There should be a system to deal with these issues, so that students will not have to be so involved and so that consequences can be consistent and fair to everyone.
As my final point, I would like to ask all of you reading this to think about what kind of justice you would like to see executed between members of our campus community. The executive board of WVKC is not exclusively or even mostly white. Many of these students are members of the LGBTQ+ community. As people of color, do we want to share solidarity amongst ourselves or treat each other as combatants? As people of color, do we feel a responsibility to have solidarity with LGBTQ+ people, and other marginalized people? I do not mean to say that we as black people must stand by those who take actions which harm us. We should always speak out against those actions — always. But, between us, there must be some element of restorative justice; criticism must be in good faith, apologies must be sincere, and these disputes should be entered into with the legitimate goal of justice and equality in mind at every moment. We should remember that none of us are disposable in the fight for justice and inclusion. We need each other.