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Waverly High School: Why White Students Parodying Domestic Violence in Blackface is Problematic

By Tiff J

With the encouragement of faculty and the Waverly community, three students at the predominantly White Waverly High School in upstate New York , decided it’d be a great idea to don Blackface and parody Chris Brown’s infamous 2009 assault on then-girlfriend Rihanna as a homecoming pep rally skit.   

The re-enactment was apparently one of a series of pop-culture parodies performed at the high school as part of their annual “Mr. Waverly” competition, where male students jockey to get the loudest cheers from their peers. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that the mere idea of mocking domestic violence while wearing Blackface is unfathomable on many levels and so should have signaled red flags for pep rally coordinators and faculty advisors. Domestic violence used as a vehicle for comedy (at a learning establishment no less) coupled with flagrantly racist undertones is especially troubling. That the skit was allowed to be carried out to fruition, without any intervention from school administrators, is flummoxing.

Rose Garrity, Executive Director of “A New Hope Center”- an agency that helps victims of domestic and sexual abuse in nearby Oswego County- criticized administrators for not intervening, “They were trying to make something funny that is far from funny, and they were being incredibly racist while they were doing it,” Garrity said. “I doubt any of those children had any idea about the history of racism and minstrels or anything like that.” A New Hope Center has been working with Waverly High and other schools on anti-violence and anti-bullying programs, so choosing to joke and laugh about a young woman’s very public experience with violence undermines any outreach work the school has done with the organization, and shows that administrators aren’t fully invested in increasing awareness amongst its students. The school’s misstep, understandably, incited folks to chorus when a picture of the skit spread across various social media platforms; students, townsfolk, and alumni immediately went on the defensive however, not fully grasping the irresponsibility and social impact of the skit’s intent. Comments justifying the vignette and obvious Blackface caricature were equally as ignorant and par for the course for those who benefit from White privilege, don’t carry the burden of having to stave off racist tropes, and so will refuse to recognize instances of racial insensitivity. The cognitive dissonance about the incident has been palpable…

“This IS NOT BLACKFACE… or even close to it.” began one comment. “This is kids trying to win a HOMETOWN CONTEST by doing a skit EVERYONE knows (Chris Brown beating Rihanna) no one should feel offended by this at all. To tell me that this is even close to racism, is like having a problem with any costume store for selling costumes of different race faces. Whether it [be] Chinese, Caucasian, African American… etc. This is 100% uncalled for. The so called “former classmate that used to be proud of the school” should be ashamed of the mess she caused.”

I don’t even need to point out the asininity and willful ignorance of that comment as it speaks for itself, or the tenuous parallels the commenter attempted to draw between Blackface and a costume shop’s wares (and not for nothing, but costume shops serve as an all you can eat buffet for folks who love delving in cultural appropriation during Halloween and acting the fool, but I digress). And since “everyone knows” about “Chris Brown beating Rihanna” and has any semblance of recollection of the leaked pictures showing her bruised and battered face, then that should have been reason enough not to twist someone’s distress into celebratory fodder to amp students up during homecoming festivities.

“Are you kidding me? This is clearly not a type of racism. The ones being ignorent [sic] are the people trying to twist this harmless pep rally into a racist dispute. They were just simply trying to have fun and make people laugh. Not make fun of African Americans in anyway way shape or form. Speaking from a person who was a spectator at this event is truly sick to my stomach reading this.” wrote another commenter, who criticized a former student for daring to speak out and express her dismay about the re-enactment. And yes… yes the historical context from which Blackface was born, does indeed, make fun of and lampoon the perceived shortcomings of African-Americans.

Apparently, according to apologists for the skit, who are demanding that folks just “get over it”, and their skewed logic; citing obvious instances of racism and taking people to task for celebrating violence against women is an act of “reverse-racism “and “over-sensitivity”… because no one likes having to be held accountable for their ignoramus behavior. Folks took the most offense at the idea that Blackface is racist (despite its RECORDED HISTORY of being just that). As Caribbean-Canadian writer Nalo Hopkinson once said, “In this part of the world, to be racist is to mention race.”   Denying the offensive nature of Blackface minstrelsy is a common way for some, to try to silence the people it affects and so have every right to speak out against modern day variations of it. Also, since when is violence perpetrated against young woman a “harmless” joke to guffaw and cheer at during high school pep rallies? Particularly since teenage girls are most at risk for domestic violence. Yet this misguided person is sick to their stomach over the backlash?

It’s a shame that Waverly’s community and parents are adamant about defending their complicity in perpetuating racial stereotypes and condoning violence against women. But since someone had enough sense to publicly challenge the ignorance, one can only hope that this is Waverly High School’s and its outlying community’s most teachable moment… for those who’re open to receiving the lesson.