Viewpoint: Ignorance by default

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If the BYU population does anything well, it’s knee-jerk reactions.

That, and racially insensitive comments, apparently.

Local comedian Dave Ackerman’s recent YouTube video, where he picked Cougars’ brains on Black History Month, went viral. Since it was posted on Feb. 7, Ackerman’s video has garnered more than 600,000 views, and was picked up by The Washington Post and The Huffington Post.

Why the fuss? Well, for one, Ackerman painted his skin darker to look African American. That’ll get people talking. (Though, for the record, this is not technically “blackface,” so let’s all stop calling it that). Then there were the responses, which made BYU students appear ignorant and unknowingly racist.

BYU students’ reactions to the video were not surprising. They  have hovered around shock, offense and shame — generally directed at Ackerman. Clearly, he shouldn’t have made the video! Clearly, the video didn’t represent the collective responses he videotaped! Clearly, this gives Mormons a bad name!

That’s what I initially thought, too. But now I’m not so sure.

Some comments on the Huffington Post article redirected my thoughts. One said, “First you could go to any college campus and substitute black for any other race including white and find enough people to say silly/stup­id/ignoran­t things.” So that got me thinking.

Another comment kept that mental ball rolling. It said, “What you see is that the average American, college student or otherwise, isn’t necessaril­y all that sharp. I think its less a reflection of overt racism per se as it is a reflection of educational gaps.”

These points settled with me better than my initial reaction. A few years ago, I spent significant time on a non-LDS university campus, and I’m sure the same ignorant responses could have been found there, too. In some ways, BYU students — and many white Latter-day Saints — are ignorant to non-white culture. But so are students, so are Americans, everywhere. Ackerman’s video speaks volumes about the failure of our educational system to teach black history — and the failure of the BYU culture to teach mature ways of discussing racial issues.

Students in the Ackerman video were asked to name famous figures in black history. All of them mentioned Martin Luther King Jr. But after King, students were at a loss for words. One student said Will Smith.

Slightly shocking, yes. But I’d like you to do something. On your fingers, count the number of black history figures you remember.
I’m guessing you only needed one hand.

I think that aspect of Ackerman’s video was genuinely representative of the BYU population — and of my generation as a whole. Beyond MLK and Rosa Parks, my generation has not learned or retained much regarding black history.

These videotaped students were also asked to impersonate a black person. Many of them obliged the request. To me this was the most disheartening part — not only because of how stereotypical their impressions were, but mostly because they portrayed such stereotypes so willingly, while knowing they were filmed for others to watch.

The fact that students’  better judgment didn’t stop them says a lot about BYU’s student population. Are we so homogeneous that doing racist impressions is somehow acceptable? Are we also so welcoming of the camera that we’ll sacrifice our better judgment for a few minutes of attention? On your fingers, count the number of BYU students you know who would have said the same things if Ackerman quizzed them.

I’m guessing you needed more than one hand. That reality disappoints  me.

Let’s all lay off Ackerman, and instead direct the criticism to ourselves and the system that has so clearly failed us.

Court Mann is the Arts & Entertainment editor at The Daily Universe. This viewpoint represents his opinion and does not necessarily represent the opinions of BYU, its administration or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

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