‘Blackface’ controversy timely at BYU

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Turmoil over NBC personality Megyn Kelly’s comments about blackface and Halloween costumes became a timely case study at BYU as broadcast students were producing a live diversity project along with students at Morgan State and West Virginia universities.

Racial and race-specific costumes at Halloween — like the movie character Black Panther and costumes portraying Native Americans — are part of a broader discussion about costumes as Halloween approaches.

A student wearing blackface as part of a football player costume was part of a Halloween contest in the BYU AdLab on Thursday. Black students at the event complained to the school’s director, and word of the incident spread among students and on social media just as a inter-campus “Kerner+50” diversity symposium was being aired by all three campuses on Friday.

On Oct. 25 a BYU communications student dressed in blackface for a costume contest hosted in the Adlab. The incident follows a similar controversy involving NBC Today show host Megyn Kelley and remarks she made on blackface. (Lexie Flickinger)

The project was designed to examine progress on racial issues since the federal Kerner Commission report was issued 51 years ago.

Communications student Allie Jones was at the costume event.

“I don’t think anybody really even got it,” Jones said of the costume. “But then afterwards I was like, ‘Oh no.’ Because the thing is, in our program we focus on diversity as a way to gain other people’s insights and to speak for people who can’t speak for themselves.”

School of Communications Director Ed Carter said he wasn’t at the event but talked to students who were offended by the costume and to the student who wore the offending costume.

“That really is not what the School of Communications is trying to teach students. In fact we’re trying to teach them the opposite,” Carter said. “We have a deep basis to be offended and, as a community and school-wide, to stand up and say we don’t tolerate it or condone it.”

Carter said he has already discussed the idea of mandatory diversity training for students and faculty, especially those participating in a professional lab like the Adlab.

BYU Newsline, a daily newscast produced by broadcast journalism students, along with students and faculty from Morgan State University and West Virginia University hosted the live lecture broadcast.

The BYU blackface incident coincidentally showed the need for diversity training. Black students’ confidence in reporting their objection to the incident is a likely indicator of progress in dealing with racial issues.

The situation parallels this week’s tumult involving Megyn Kelly.

“You do get in trouble if you are a white person who puts on blackface on Halloween, or a black person who puts on whiteface for Halloween. Back when I was a kid, that was OK, as long as you were dressing up as, like, a character,” Kelly said on her show, which NBC said Friday afternoon it was cancelling.

Jones said she does not believe the student dressed in blackface with any malice or ill intent and said he probably just didn’t think things through. “I just think he was trying to be funny, but he wasn’t doing it the right way, and it wasn’t good,” she said. 

After the meeting, the student posted an apology for his costume on a social networking app.

“To the awesome men and women of this great Adlab family, I want to openly apologize for what I did today. I realize it was offensive and not appropriate at any level and especially here where we have such an open and inviting culture,”  he said. “I hope everyone can believe that what I did was purely unintentional, but I do realize it was unprofessional.”

Carter said he recognizes the university is where students learn, sometimes from their mistakes, but this instance still needs to be taken seriously and is clearly out of line with the school’s Diversity Statement.

“I take this as an opportunity to say there’s still a lot of remaining issues that we all need to do better on,” he said.

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