Thursday, February 9, 2012

Who's at Fault? Some Thoughts on the BYU Video

Perhaps you've seen the following video of students at Brigham Young University answering questions from a white man who donned "black face" to see what the BYU crowd knows about black history. If not, you should watch it.

As you can see, the students interviewed are woefully uninformed about black history. Very few of them could name what month is Black History Month. Everyone could name Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X as historical figures, though they didn't seem quite sure of what those people did. Others named Samuel Jackson and "Fifty Cents" as black historical figures. 

Most depressing to me was the insensitive racism that these students didn't even seem to notice they were falling into. One student says that he celebrates Black History Month by eating fried chicken and drinking grape juice. Another calls the people he interacted with in Alabama "colored people." A couple of people refer to white girls dating black guys as having "jungle fever." Several of the students do "black" impressions that fall into stereotypical speech patterns and slang, demonstrating the surface-level analysis of what it means to be "black." 

After I watched this video, I felt sad, but not surprised. I also didn't have much to say about it. Yes, these college-educated young adults should know more about black history. Yes, these students should know better than to mock people based on stereotypes. But who's to blame when they don't know more? Who's to blame when they do mock? Who's at fault here? And, most importantly, how do we fix it? 

I may be an idealist, but I truly believe that most of the people in the world are good. I believe in my heart that most of the people around me know that racism (and oppression in general) is bad. I believe that they don't want to hurt other people by putting them down and lumping them into stereotyped categories. I believe that they see people as individuals when they actually get to know them. And I believe they are capable of facing the oppression that they participate in when it's shown to them. 

I may be a cynic, but I also truly believe that our systems of oppression are so intertwined into our daily lives that having to face our complicity in those systems isn't very likely. When we are surrounded by sexist images, racist stereotypes on television, homophobia in our legal systems, and a general acceptance of the status quo, it's easy to overlook our own privileges. 

That's why, as frustrated as I am with the students in the BYU video, I didn't know how to respond to it. Do I yell at those kids for not seeking out more information about black history? Based on what? When we live in a culture that hasn't demonstrated the importance of having that information, how can I place all of the blame on them for not doing it? Do I dismiss them as racists that I have no use for? Based on what? The fact that they act like many other privileged people who haven't had to think about the impact of their thoughts and actions in any systemic way? What good does dismissing them do when it ultimately means I'd have to dismiss large segments of the population, large groups of people I'm around every day?

And am I so much better? I've worked very hard to face my white privilege. I try to call out racism when I see it, and I definitely could have answered those questions a lot better than those students did. But what other systems of oppression do I silently participate in? What other systems have I not even known to question? 

That's why I am happy to see a project like the Unfair Campaign, which I read about on Racism Review.

With the tagline "It's hard to see racism when you're white," the Unfair Campaign targets a majority audience by calling out white privilege and calling upon readers to "See It," "Know It," and "Stop It."  

I like that this campaign aims to inform without blaming and then give people an avenue to actually do something about it by becoming an active participant against racism when they see it without aggression. 

Too often, facing privilege means facing feelings of inadequacy and the sense that the world is crashing down around you while you watch, defenseless. Sometimes it can be easier to just refuse to see that injustice for what it is. By giving people a path to action, this campaign addresses that in a positive way. 

How have you dealt with privilege? Are there privileges you know you have but haven't figured out how to face? 

1 comment:

  1. Ok, so when I first saw this video, I WAS OUTRAGED!! All I kept thinking was what a bunch of ignorant people and they should be ashamed of themselves. But then in talking to my fav Professor about the video, we talked about what was making people the most upset was the wrong things. Why were people so upset over the black face? Why was that offensive? Thousands of churches across the country will have kids in their praise dancing makeup (which is white) on Sunday. It was badly done black face on purpose to prove his point. Only three noticed. Thus showing more ignorance. The second most talked about portion of the video was the imitations of black people. The students were merely mocking the caricatures that they unfortunately see on TV. I agree with BJ, I believe that the world is for the most part a good place filled with good people, this study could have been done on any campus in America and yielded the same answers. On the bus coming home yesterday my friend and I were discussing this topic and we looked at two young black ladies and asked them when black history month was and she said hold on and pulled out her was not in there and had to ask the man sitting in front of her.