Letter to the editor: Blackface scandal should not overshadow campus activism

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Dear Editor,

I am writing about the March 8 article in the The Occidental on the photograph of students in blackface in the 1984 college yearbook. Having recently completed a conversation about blackface for a “Big Questions” series with the president of Macalester College, where I am currently employed, I am glad to see the administration paying attention to the damaging effects of these images. President Brian Rosenberg decided to face the issue head on when images of blackface were discovered in Macalester’s college archives. In our conversation, while acknowledging the importance of directly addressing the issues, I also expressed frustration that as Black staff are called to address the harms caused by these images, they are pulled back into a relationship with the image, rather than being lifted up for the significant, transformative work for the campus that they are doing.

As Occidental addresses the photo of the donor and former trustee in blackface, I hope that there will be comparable energy and attention directed toward what the students’ archival research on “The History of Equity and Diversity at Occidental” uncovered: the activism and advocacy over decades to resist and change the ongoing, persistent anti-Blackness and related subordinations at the heart of a primarily white institution. I am proud of members of my Spring 2014 class, “Culture and Community,” for their work on this project, which brought to light not only ongoing injustices but also the efforts and voices of those who have struggled for equity at the college across the years. I hope this is not lost in the current focus on the especially damaging racist image, which is included in the class’ archival project. In order to maintain the focus on those organizing for change, class members collectively decided not to highlight any particular image. While they decided not to make names visible in the blackface image, they provided specific information about where to find the image, should anyone seek to find it. One goal of the class was to create an archive of materials available to future researchers and writers. (It would not be surprising if future archival work uncovered other hateful images, incidents and remarks.) Students decided that they wanted their own project to focus on the hard work done over the years by faculty, staff and especially students to counter marginalizing, racist practices and to make the college more inclusive and equitable.

I also hope that there will be equal attention paid to the project of the Fall 2015 “Culture and Community” class, when we changed direction from doing archival research to documenting the protests, the occupation of the administration building and the powerful, transformative work done by students in the emerging Oxy United for Black Liberation (OUBL) movement. Following the previous project’s focus on resistance and advocacy for change, the 2015 class (and later, independent researcher and student organizer Aaliyah Davis) worked with student organizers to preserve evidence of their movement and their efforts that extended beyond the struggle for inclusion to creating liberatory space. OUBL students brought to light ways that anti-Blackness and companion subordinations are normalized and thus shape the everyday lives and experiences of students from minoritized communities. Their movement showed the campus possibilities for creating transformative cultural space. I hope that those preserved materials will also be researched as current students continue to raise issues about their own experiences at the college.

From the article in The Occidental, it appears that faculty and students have had to spend a great deal of time addressing issues related to the blackface image. As I am thankful to those who do such labor, I also hope that there is equal attention to the amazing work that they do as scholars, teachers, mentors, students and activists who continue the struggle for equity, justice and liberation. Attention to what they are working to accomplish would help to avoid attaching their labor only to a racist image and instead move their praxis toward transformative possibilities for the college.

Donna Maeda is the Dean of the Institute of Global Citizenship and the Dean for Faculty Development and Diversity at Macalester College. She was formerly a professor of Critical Theory & Social Justice at Occidental College.