Colorado College reaches uneasy pause after 'blackface' controversy 

click to enlarge Despite diversity efforts, Vanessa Roberts says life for CC minorities is not always hunky-dory. - COURTESY VANESSA ROBERTS
  • Courtesy Vanessa Roberts
  • Despite diversity efforts, Vanessa Roberts says life for CC minorities is not always hunky-dory.

Dressing up like Steve Urkel from the 1990s TV show "Family Matters" is easy, suggests Vanessa Roberts, co-chair of the Colorado College Black Student Union.

You put on "high-water" pants with suspenders, maybe add a cardigan sweater and a pair of wide-rimmed glasses. If you want to go further, you could make some comedic mishap before uttering the character's trademark line in a nasal voice, "Did I do that?"

Most people who know the show would call that a good costume, Roberts says.

"There's no need to paint your face black to make sure people know you," she says.

Last month, four Colorado College hockey players took that extra step on a public golf course, portraying Urkel and three other characters from the show.

"We had wigs and other props to complete the costumes and used makeup to most closely resemble the characters," they explained in an Oct. 11 e-mail about the incident.

Motive unclear

Controversy and confusion then engulfed the campus.

"Hockey players' "blackface' incites uproar," stated an Oct. 12 headline in CC's student newspaper, the Catalyst. Everyone learned that the players' two-week suspension, chalked up to a "disciplinary issue," had come down because of this Sept. 8 "TV theme show outing" at Valley Hi Golf Course. Newspaper and television gave some national attention to the story.

Then the clamor subsided, leaving Roberts and many others wondering what the players intended when they put on makeup that day.

"There's a big difference between blackface and painting their faces black," she says.

To say the players wore blackface means they were trying to re-create stereotypical black characters played by white actors in 18th- and early 19th-century theater. Most would readily call such aims racist and condemn the players.

On the other hand, the players might have put on makeup genuinely ignorant about the racist history of wearing blackface.

Such behavior, some would say, is stunningly nave, but not a sign of racial hatred.

The players have insisted their actions fall into the latter category, and CC's administrators who chose the hockey suspension, disciplinary probation and racial education measures over expulsion seem to have agreed.

Unconfirmed rumors

While Roberts seems willing to accept the possibility, she wonders how classmates at a college extolling the virtues of diversity could have maintained such ignorance. One of the players was a senior, she points out.

"What does that say about CC's mission?" she asks.

The first rumors of CC students in blackface led to a Sept. 17 forum about the campus' "party culture."

That culture, Roberts says, allows some parties to take on "derogatory" themes.

A party in early September, she explains, went from a theme of "wear where you're from" to "rep' your hood" and then "reppin' the hood."

Vague reports had emerged that two students went to that party in blackface. In response, Roberts and Courtney-Rose Harris with the Black Student Union sent an e-mail to student e-mail lists on campus outlining the report and the racist history of blackface.

"This translates into one of the oldest American traditions of blatant racism which two members of our community felt acceptable to revive," the e-mail read.

The original reports of students in blackface at a party were investigated and turned out to be false, says Rochelle Mason, the college's director of minority student life.

But within days of the student forum, senior and hockey team captain Scott Thauwald, sophomores Andreas "Dre" Vlassopoulos and Brian Connelly and freshman Brett Wysopal told college administrators about their costumes on the golf course.

John Riker, a philosophy professor and co-chair of the college's diversity task force, says the punishment rests on the conclusion that the players' actions were racially insensitive and not acts of hatred.

"Acts of racial insensitivity get educated," Riker says, noting the players apparently had no idea how their actions would be received.

Not many minorities

Colorado College now has about 50 black students in a nearly 2,000-member student body. Minorities as a whole make up only about 17 percent of that student body.

What that means, Roberts says, is that many classes will have, at most, one or two non-white students. That can make things difficult, particularly when professors call on those students for a viewpoint expected somehow to be unique.

"So Billy, what does black America think about that?" she intones in a deep voice.

This kind of "tokenizing" is ironic, given Roberts' own background: her father is African-American, her mother German.

"I don't even identify as black," she says. "I'm mixed-race."

But Roberts says her awareness of being seen as a black woman has only deepened since enrolling at Colorado College.

"The campus is very segregated," she says. Walk into a lunchroom on campus, she says, and students will often be divided along lines of race.

When minority students hold rallies and events calling attention to divides, she adds, they have trouble getting other students to attend.

The four hockey players met Oct. 3 with students from the Black Student Union and others reached through minority student group e-mail lists. The hockey players apologized, satisfying some students. Paulina Barrios, who did most of the reporting for the Catalyst story, says some students felt the administration was trying to bury the issue by treating it as a minority issue.

CC administrators have insisted the apology was only part of a larger response.

After the apology, Roberts says, she asked the players to help "bridge the gap" that seems to divide minority students from others on campus. Three of the players, along with other members of the hockey team, attended a unity rally on campus Oct. 10.

But now, as classes wind down in the year's second block, it's unsure whether more work will go into easing the divides on campus.

Thauwald, Vlassopoulos, Connelly and Wysopal could not be reached to comment for this story. Their hockey suspensions ended before their team swept Minnesota last weekend to start the regular season, and the subject was not raised in most news coverage of those games.

In e-mails and published statements, the players insisted there was no "racist intent" with the costumes, and that they regret having offended anyone.

Mason acknowledges there has been second-guessing of how the school responded on both sides. But the response, she says, was appropriate, teaching the students their behavior wasn't tolerable.

The media attention that followed has only reinforced that message, she says, and the players seem to have learned from it.

"They got that it was wrong," Mason says.


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