Stetson Students’ Blackface Stunt Raises Backlash

By Ken Ma Courtesy Of The Orlando Sentinel
Updated: November 24, 2005

ORLANDO, FLA.— — Stetson University softball players who painted their faces black and wore Halloween costumes to impersonate basketball players created controversy when their actions stirred images from a dark period of American history.

They offended some students by wearing jet-black face paint, cornrows and fake gold teeth to depict some of the men’s basketball team players. The blackface impersonation of the athletes occurred at a DeLand bar several days before Halloween.

One student, who found the female ballplayers’ actions offensive, sent an e-mail to an arm of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil-rights organization. Blackface, which has been used by actors to depict black people, is associated with racism and negative stereotypes of the black community.

The student’s identity was not released Wednesday.

University officials said Wednesday that they do not tolerate such behavior, but decided not to punish the women because they apparently didn’t understand that blackface depictions are an insult to blacks.

“We were concerned with the students’ behavior because of the historical negative impact that the use of the blackface has had on African-American people,” said Jim Beasley, Stetson’s senior vice president and chief operating officer. “We thought that it was not done with intentional malice. It was bad judgment on their [the softball players'] part.”

Neither the players nor their coach, Frank Griffin, could be reached for comment.

Instead of punishment, Stetson is educating the 16 players on the softball team — none of whom are black — about the painful history of blackface caricatures in America.

The school also wants to educate the men’s basketball team about blackface because several of its members loaned the women their practice jerseys for the Halloween costumes, knowing what they were going to be used for.

Wylie Tucker, Stetson’s assistant men’s basketball coach, said some of his players were happy their fellow athletes wanted to depict both the black and white players. Eight of the 14 men’s basketball players are black. The players could not be reached for comment.

“They were flattered because people thought that much of them as student athletes to impersonate them,” Wylie said.

Part of the softball team’s diversity training included a viewing of the documentary Ethnic Notions, which discusses deep-rooted stereotypes that fueled prejudice toward blacks.

The female ballplayers also are required to read and write a reflection paper about Tim Wise’s novel, White Like Me, which is an autobiographical account of racism.

“I think we have a responsibility to help them understand the significance of that behavior and why there are such wide-ranging concerns about it,” said Leonard Nance, dean of first-year studies and university adviser on diversity.

The school also hopes to show Ethnic Notions to the basketball players in the near future and has recommended that they read Who’s Afraid of a Large Black Man?, a book on race and racism by former National Basketball Association star Charles Barkley.

Stetson’s athletes are not the only ones who have gotten into trouble with the use of blackface and other depictions of blacks.

In 1993, actor Ted Danson offended many when he wore blackface and told racially-themed jokes during a roast for actress Whoopi Goldberg.

Last year, University of Central Florida President John Hitt appeared on the cover of a campus newspaper that showed him and a university trustee wearing Afro wigs. Campus critics said the incident recalled negative stereotypes.

Beasley, the Stetson administrator, said he doesn’t recall any blackface incidents in the 33 years he has worked at the university, but the school has not escaped controversy regarding race.

In 2003, the staff of the campus newspaper, The Reporter, was fired and the publication was shut down for the rest of the school year because it had published a profanity-filled April Fools’ Day issue. The edition included racist jokes and a sex column advocating rape and domestic violence.

Stetson senior Peter Urscheler said he doesn’t think this latest incident will tarnish Stetson’s image.

“It’s not the events that occur that will damage an institution,” Urscheler said. “It’s how the institution reacts and how we will learn from an incident that will govern our reputation.”