Students filled the lecture room at Tuesday evening’s discussion of the manifestation of blackface on campus. The town hall was organized by the Black Students’ Association after a Halloween costume contest prize was awarded to five students dressed as the Jamaican bobsled team from the movie Cool Runnings, with four white students wearing brown makeup and one Trinidadian student in white makeup.
The party was hosted by the student councils of St. Michael’s, Victoria, and University colleges; SMCSU exec Deryn Robson awarded the costume prize by looking at photos after the party. Robson has since apologized, as did the five who dressed up. The BSA wants each of the college councils to publish apologies in their college newspaper.
The costume provoked an uproar after a photo of the students was posted on the Torontoist blog, with mixed responses. Critics, including the BSA and UTSU VP equity Daniella Kyei, say the costume is an example of blackface and is offensive. Defenders questioned whether the portrayal constituted blackface and cited irony, pointing to recent examples like 2008’s Tropic Thunder.
At the town hall, speakers outlined the historic and modern manifestations of blackface and critiqued what they saw as a lack of response from student councils and the university administration. They argued that when it comes to multiculturalism, North American society is slow to walk the walk.
The costume incident has attracted attention beyond campus, with newspapers and publications on higher education picking up the story. As U of T prof Stephen Johnson, an expert on blackface and minstrelsy, told the Toronto Star, “If you ask 50 different people, they’ll all see 50 different things.”