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Reaction from Serra High Blackface Incident

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October 30, 2013 1:30 p.m.


Lei-Chala Wison, President, NAACP, San Diego Branch

Wendy Patrick, SDSU Ethics Expert

Related Story: School Officials Look Into Serra High Blackface Incident


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition, I am Maureen Cavanaugh. Our top story tomorrow is Halloween. Many use scary or provocative costumes on Halloween. Two high school coaches put a picture of them dressed as members of the bobsled team in the old 1993 movie Cool Running. It is not known why they chose those costumes but it has provoked controversy. I will introduce Lei-Chala Wilson and Wendy Patrick. The local NAACP condemns the Serra High coaches, calling for them to be fired. Do you think these coaches deserve such harsh penalty?

LEI-CHALA WILSON: The problem is, we found out there were a lot of parents and students who are very concerned and offended. When that happens the NAACP has to take action. Even though I asked for their dismissal, and other disciplinary actions. Maybe they can take some kind of race relations training. This opens up a dialogue. We sent out a statement. I'm getting people thanking me, and getting emails that are very negative as well. It has opened up a dialogue and hopefully at some time I can have time to sit down with these cultures so they can understand why this was offensive.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You lead to my question there. Some people need a reminder, can you remind us of the history of blackface in America and why it is still so sensitive?

LEI-CHALA WILSON: It started in the 1920s. People were mocking black people. Why did they have to color themselves black? I want them to know what it's like to get in the elevator and have people shrink from them. I would like for them to go to Africa and tried to do the transatlantic thing and see how funny that is. I would like them to see what it's like to be swinging from a tree. Being black is not easy, and not just us but it's also other people of color and I still cannot understand why they think it's funny.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What if someone puts on a costume, with no malice in their hearts. Is this ever to be understood?

LEI-CHALA WILSON: Why would they darken their face? I cannot understand that. Someone asked me what if some black cultures did Whiteface? I have never seen that. We have history here in America with blacks not being treated fairly. They still could've done the bobsled without blackface.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Wendy, the Serra High coaches are only two incidences of blackface. There have been a few others. What is going on?

WENDY PATRICK: Twitter is buzzing with apologies for these costumes going wrong. A lot of examples aren't in the news are obvious the folks. You are one camera shot away from not being remembered for accomplishments but being remembered by what you are dressed as this Halloween. If the costume is borderline, some people say they wish they had thought it through first.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Is there an idea these days that when people look at Halloween costumes they think all rules can be broken?

WENDY PATRICK: Halloween has always granted some leniency. I remember one Halloween around the time of the lawsuit against Hooters where men went dressed as Hooters girls. We live in a world where we need to think this through. People can be offended and it is completely inappropriate.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Taking a step away from a serious issue that we've been talking about, what do people need to take in consideration? Most people should know by now. They should know that they are going to offend people with their costumes. What should people think about when they're trying to choose a costume that is edgy, but does not cross the line?

WENDY PATRICK: One thing is the perception of others is something you need to think about, and anything that resembles a weapon is not at good idea for a variety of reasons. Even beyond that, as political figures it's not funny. Dressing as your favorite popstar, lots of examples I can think of that would raise eyebrows today, when people would have gotten away with it years ago. We live in an age where social media he plays a part in social influence. We know about examples of the last couple of weeks because we have seen them Twitter and Facebook. We are very tuned into social norms and what is appropriate for costumes.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That was one of the issues with the Serra High coaches. They posted the picture on Facebook.

LEI-CHALA WILSON: Yes, that is how it came out and that's out why students and parents were upset. I do not know whether it was on their site, or where it came from, but that is how it went viral. That is how we got involved.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I would be interested to hear some of the reactions that you have had to the stance of the NCAACP.

LEI-CHALA WILSON: The costumes may be a bad choice of movies for Halloween themes, but not enough for termination. Maybe they need a training film on diversity. Someone wrote would you be calling for the firing if it were to black coaches in whiteface? I've never seen a black person do whiteface. I've never seen that.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Flipping it around, that does not make any sense. There is never an issue of whiteface being an offensive caricature. But there is cultural stereotype or history of blackface being offensive. Coming out of the demeaning category.

LEI-CHALA WILSON: That is correct. If people knew our history I would think that coaches who are teachers would have thought first. Go as something else. Why did they not go as something else? I feel like saying tricks are for kids. I think Halloween is for kids.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: When you think about this, is that the only costume that should be off-limits?

LEI-CHALA WILSON: I have to think of something. Like women who are victims of violence and may find some things are not funny. How would you like someone going as a child molester? I can't think what that would look like and I can't think of anything, but there are things that are offensive and having dialogue and history is important so you do not repeat it. I do not think it was funny.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Wendy, we have this trend towards sexy and skimpy costumes for women. The trend was recently satirized on The Daily Show. Can that be thought of as offensive?

WENDY PATRICK: Absolutely. What else is offensive? There are more people dressing as criminals. I remember growing up people were dressing as the Godfather. It's incredible the way the tide is turned and it's not witty, it's insensitive. It strikes a chord with people who have been victimized. This is one of the things we're asked to think about beforehand. It's everything from politics to women, protected classes, weapons and criminals. Anything that centers around that. The most popular costumes are heroes and pirates and nurses. Go as one of those.

LEI-CHALA WILSON: One email said my son used to dress up as his hero Ken Griffey, who is black, is that racist? Well did he wear blackface? You can be can Ken Griffey without being in blackface. It's like mocking us. Some people say your name is offensive. To target blacks who focus on the ìN word.î

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You can see from these comments that this is touched a chord in a lot of people. I remember a couple of years ago England's Prince Harry dressed up as a Nazi for Halloween and that outraged a lot of people. Is that kind of costume offensive?

WENDY PATRICK: No one would disagree with that. Dressing as some nefarious world leader, we can go down the line. Everyone would agree with that is inappropriate. Even dressing as our current political leaders is not funny. You have to think about that.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We have this notion, some people will say Halloween should be a place where people are able to express themselves, we should not have to deal with political correctness, we've lost our sense of humor. We do not allow people to express themselves in ways that they see fit, what is your response to that?

LEI-CHALA WILSON: Why do they have to express themselves that way when there are so many other choices? It would not be any more funny if you're offending someone. If someone was dressed as KKK, no one would think that was right. I do not understand why they had to paint their faces black. They could've been bobsledders the way they are.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And what to do about lost sense of humor about these things?

WENDY PATRICK: Increased sensitivity is a good thing for everyone. No one gets dressed for Halloween intending to offend anyone else. By opening dialogue we can make sure that we open up Halloween without putting it damper on the good time. Easier and more fun for everybody if we stayed away from those lines.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What you hope San Diego Unified's response will be?

LEI-CHALA WILSON: I hope they reinstate them and have them training on race human relationship programs. Maybe this would not have happened. We also have to work with sexual harassment programs. There is a reason we have them. I am open to them calling or emailing me. I would not mind having a conversation with them. Do not think there was ill intent. I think that would be enough having some training and a dialogue so this is not happen again. But I have parents and kids upset, so I have to take action.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Okay, I have been speaking with the Lei-Chala Wilson and Wendy Patrick. We're all going to dress up as Bugs Bunny right?

LEI-CHALA WILSON: I don't do Halloween.