Statement on UT Blackface Incident
Reflecting on the recent onslaught of racist comments and racially insensitive incidents that have plagued our nation, journalist and CNN news anchor Don Lemon recently commented, on the very last day of February, “This may be the worst Black History Month ever.” Unless we as a community at UT stand up and speak out against such incidents on our own campus, we have to make that same claim. The blackface incident revealed to the public on Thursday, February 28, 2019 in a snapchat photo and caption has done serious damage to a campus climate that continues to battle assaults on efforts to promote and support diversity and inclusion (To learn more about why blackface is racist and offensive, please refer to this article).
This incident is just the latest in a pattern of recent racist incidents at the University of Tennessee. In January 2019, a UT sorority suspended one of its members for a social media video referring to black people as the n-word. In November 2018, swastikas and hate messages were painted on “The Rock” at UTK not long after 11 worshippers were killed at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. White supremacists were allowed to give an on-campus speech and bring threatening and violent messages to our campus during Black History Month in February 2018. Students attempting to educate about sexuality are being held back and silenced. During Black History Month in February 2017, there was controversy surrounding Dr. Stacey Patton’s accurately titled lecture “How Killing Black Children is an American Tradition.” And in 2015 our inaugural Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Inclusion, Rickey Hall, was condemned and eventually let go in 2016 for educating people about gender diversity and for reminding people to be thoughtful of and sensitive to the beliefs of others during holiday celebrations.
This pattern reflects the reality that many of us at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville do not want to admit but must come to terms with. There is a toxic and particularly racist atmosphere at the University of Tennessee.
The Africana Studies Program categorically denounces the incident portrayed in the photo. We must join from all levels (students, faculty, staff, and especially campus leadership) to issue strong and emphatic condemnation of such incidents, if we are going to build and sustain a climate that that is welcoming and supportive for everyone. Of course, we can neither control nor legislate the behavior of every individual in our campus, but we can, through our words and actions, model what we truly mean by being welcoming and inclusive. Failure to vehemently condemn acts such as the blackface post makes us complicit in sustaining these acts of racism of and gives agency to those who perpetrate them. Speaking out against such actions is just the first but essential step in countering that extremism and taking up the necessary work of racial justice.
—The University of Tennessee Africana Studies Executive Committee