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

October 17, 2012

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



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.

The school’s misstep, understandably, incited folks to chorus when a picture of the skit, which was originally posted as an unfiltered iReport on CNN’s website by Waverly High alumnus Matthew Dishler on Monday, went viral across various social media and blogging platforms and catapulted the school into the national spotlight for all the wrong reasons.



According to online news source The Raw Story, Dishler said he’s received a lot of negative feedback for posting the the picture.  
“Let me be clear: Domestic violence is not a joke for school. Ever,” he said. “Do they do it on TV? Yes. Know what else they do on TV? Eat maggots, talk openly about their sex lives, use profane language, show drinking, smoking, a litany of other offenses. If your justification for why it wasn’t wrong is because it is ‘on TV’ or is a personal attack against me, you need to grow up. And I am not trying to target the children. The fact that at 24 years old I have enough sense to know that that is not a proper thing to do in a school and administrators let this go is the problem. Of course the kids think it is ok. The ones who should be telling them it is not aren’t doing anything about it.” 

Dishler also told the Associated Press via a phone interview, -- "There were adults who should have stood up and said, 'Hey, guys, this is not OK. Blackface is not OK. Is it illegal? No. But you should really not do that,’ "  

Domestic violence used as a vehicle for comedy (at a learning institution no less) coupled with flagrantly racist images is doubly 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 and will continue 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.

Students, townsfolk, and alumni immediately went on the defensive however, not fully grasping the irresponsibility and social impact of the skit. 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 regarding 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 tried to draw between Blackface minstrelsy 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?" wrote another commenter who criticized a former student for speaking out in opposition to the parody. "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.” 
 And yes… yes the historical context from which Blackface was born, does indeed, make fun of and lampoon the perceived shortcomings of African-Americans

According to racism apologists who often insist 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. Completely disregarding the offensive nature of Blackface minstrelsy and patronizing folks is a common way to try to silence people who are most affected by racism and who have every right to speak out against it. Yet the aforementioned commenter is sick to their stomach over the backlash?  

A picture of the skit was initially posted as

In a statement to the Daily News, Superintendent Joseph Yelich said...
“The Waverly School District is committed to creating a positive atmosphere through all of our activities. We will be meeting with building administrators, advisers, and students to examine our current activities and to develop future activities consistent with that commitment. There will be meetings with Building Administrators in the a.m., meetings with the advisors and the school counselors, meetings with students individually and as a group and ultimately assemblies with grade level student groups to set clear expectations for our behavior and the impact it has on all people." 

But this isn’t the first time students at the school have performed skits wearing some variation of Blackface. Last year a student donned it to portray Tiger Woods.  

As Caribbean-Canadian writer Nalo Hopkinson once said, “In this part of the world, to be racist is to mention race.”   Refusing the acknowledge the offensive nature of Blackface minstrelsy or any other instance of "hipster racism" and denying someone's humanity for shits and giggless is a common way for some, to try to silence the group of people who're most affected by bigotry and have every right to speak out against it
Also, since when is violence perpetrated against young women a “harmless” joke to guffaw and cheer at during high school pep rallies?? Particularly since teenage girls are most at risk for domestic violence.

It’s a shame that Waverly’s community and parents are more adamant about defending their complicity in teaching their young people how to perpetuate stereotypes and condone violence against women rather than trying to help raise awareness. But since someone had the presence of mind to publicly challenge ignorance as entertainment in an atmosphere that should've been least likely to excuse it, 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 and learning from it.