Photos of USG presidential candidate Josh Weinstein '09 wearing dark clothes and black face-paint caused a stir on campus over the weekend, after they were published by a blog last Thursday.
The captioned photos, which depict Halloween festivities, were posted by Weinstein on his personal website in the fall semester of his freshman year. An anonymous student apparently saved copies of the photos, which Weinstein later deleted from his site, and submitted them last week to IvyGate, which covers news from the Ivy League.
Along with the photos and captions, IvyGate ran a statement sent by Weinstein on Nov. 28. Though Weinstein stressed in his statement that he had no racist intentions, the IvyGate story caught the attention of minority groups on campus.
Some students thought Weinstein's costume resembled blackface, the highly controversial makeup worn by white performers to caricature blacks in the past. Many blacks consider blackface costumes to be racist and derogatory.
According to the captions that accompanied the photos, Weinstein and several friends planned to go out dressed as members of the Blue Man Group, but found only green and black paint.
Weinstein and three friends "donned the black face paint to become the black man group, as a tribute to the lost blue man group idea," according to one of the captions from Weinstein's site. The caption also said that Weinstein went as "a shadow/rick james," while his friends were supposed to be Malcolm X, Nat Turner and Rosa Parks, according to the same caption.
In the statement, Weinstein said the photos show him "dressed as a person's shadow. It was very clear, from the beginning, what my costume was about: imitating a person's shadow. As such, I followed around other party attendees, mimicking their actions."
Weinstein also said that the references to African-American civil rights activists and the Dave Chappelle parody of entertainer Rick James were "attempts at humor," and apologized to any students who were offended.
Members of black student groups expressed concern over the weekend about the implications, intended or not, of Weinstein's actions and about the representation of minority students' issues by the USG.
Black Men's Awareness Group member Ben Tagoe '09 sent an email to the group after he read the post about Weinstein.
"This is obviously an issue ... that affects all of the black men at this university," Tagoe said. He added that he sent the post to inform group members and prompt dialogue, not to bias them against Weinstein.
In light of the controversy, the Black Student Union (BSU) held an open forum with Weinstein and his fellow presidential candidate Sarah Langberg '09, BSU members and other concerned students Sunday in Frist Campus Center.
BSU vice president Davion Chism '09 read a statement on behalf of the group, and explained that the BSU is not looking for an apology or proof that Weinstein is not a racist, so much as expressing concern about his ability to represent racial minorities if he is elected USG president.
"His inability to take responsibility for his mishaps indicates that he may be unable to represent the constituency that the BSU represents," Chism said.
A visibly distraught Weinstein apologized profusely and made efforts to explain his actions. "I did not go in blackface — I went in black face-paint," Weinstein said. "I would never have put the two words together, but I crossed the line."
BSU officers said they hope to use this incident to begin a dialogue about racial insensitivity on campus.
"The point is that as the BSU, we have to be cognizant of the fact that race is ignored on this campus," BSU senior adviser Dwight Draughon '09 said. "This is not about Josh; this is about the future of the USG."
"[Racial insensitivity] happens every day from all sides of the spectrum ... and there's no one addressing this and saying this is actually an issue. We believe Josh is a great person, and both of you coming says a lot."
"We decided that this was an important issue that we should have a discussion about ... Josh is a USG candidate, and if elected, he would be representing minority students," Chism said. Both candidates were invited to speak about how they would deal with these kinds of controversies as president.
"If something that was racially insensitive did happen on campus, how would they deal with it? We want to make sure that they will represent us to the best degree," Chism said.
Langberg and Weinstein described some of the lessons they learned from this incident. Weinstein was so upset he could barely respond to questions.
"I feel like I pride myself on being human and being someone people can come to. But reading these comments on IvyGate that I don't represent you and you don't feel comfortable coming to me, is probably the worst thing possible for me," he said. "I feel so, so, so fucking bad, you have no idea."
Weinstein, the current USG vice president, has proposed several initiatives this semester to address diversity on campus, including the creation of a "diversity chair" in the USG Senate, a round-table discussion with all of the ethnic student groups, a multicultural fashion show and an international food festival.
"I feel so strongly about bringing people together," Weinstein said. "I wanted to bring these issues up through the diversity meeting, but now I did this."
Langberg emphasized the role of the USG in representing all students.
"I think this event highlights the things that we all need to think about," she said. "No one expects that this is a personal attack, but it brings up larger issues of insensitivities that we need to be aware that we are unaware of."
Langberg also dispelled the rumor that she played some role in the submission of the story to IvyGate. "I had no part in this. I would never stoop this low," Langberg said. She added that she had been bcc'd on the original email sent to IvyGate and that she notified administrators about it immediately.
BSU member Roger Mason '08, a vocal participant in the discussion, urged the members of BSU to take advantage of this opportunity.
"This is the beginning, not the end, of the conversation between the USG and the BSU. This is on us too ... to make sure that race issues on this campus continue to progress," Mason said.
Along these lines, the Fields Center will sponsor a lecture this week on the history and racial significance of blackface.
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