Anti-racist action in Florida

By Lauren Byers

ON OCTOBER 24, the Beta Theta Pi fraternity at the University of Florida (UF) in Gainesville, Fla., threw a "CMT vs. BET" (Country Music Television v. Black Entertainment Television) costume party.

If the racial implications of party's "theme" weren't clear enough, some male students who chose to dress up as rappers in blackface made the connection.

This was not "just a costume," but an act of racial prejudice and discrimination against African Americans. Shortly after the party, a photograph taken of the young men dressed in blackface surfaced on the internet and spread like wildfire.

While disturbing, it was not surprising, considering this was not the first time UF students have been captured on camera in blackface. Last year, around Halloween, members of the UF softball team appeared in blackface.

But with this latest incident, students and community activists have refused to remain silent about the blatant racism that exists on the University of Florida campus.

The Institute of Black Culture at the University of Florida, Dream Defenders, community members and students called an emergency planning meeting to discuss the blackface "incident." The following week, some 50 UF students, predominantly members of the Black community, attended a Student Government Senate meeting to address their discontent. As several speakers pointed out, this was not an isolated event, but a manifestation of the institutional and systemic racism that exists not only at the University of Florida, but in American society at large.

In response to the lack of action taken by the administration on this issue, Shamile Louis one of the main organizers and a third-year undergraduate stated:

What stands out most to me about this scandal is that there has yet to be something sent out by administration addressing the entire campus about this occurrence because early in the spring of 2012, I recall receiving an e-mail from the president of this University in regards to a hazing incident that took place [by a black fraternity, which was later suspended].

There have been statements issued in newspapers, three sentence e-mails sent out with the note to "forward it to your students" and apologies directed to specific Black organizations on campus.

And while the apologies are nice, it should be noted that there is no one monolithic entity that can speak for, or accept an apology on behalf of all Black students on this campus. The University should be doing more.

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ANOTHER KEY point for multiple speakers, including student senators unassociated with organizers, addressed the need for education reform at UF, specifically in regard to African American history and, more generally, in regard to all oppressed groups in American society.

As Justin Dunnavant, the second president of the Black Graduate Student Organization, stated:

I am confident that the first step to a long-term solution to many of these issues is the establishment of an Africana Studies Department, complete with an undergraduate major. This would expand and diversify the courses available to students and bring awareness to issues surrounding communities of African descent.

As many administrators know, the African American Studies program was established in the 1960s and has yet to offer at the very least an undergraduate major, while many of our peer institutions throughout the state have such a degree program. Within the past three years alone, the university has lost or pushed out at least six African American faculty members and many students of color complain that number of faculty of color in their respective departments are surprisingly close to zero.

While the broader understanding of racism is central to this fight, it does not minimize the actions of the UF fraternity students and the administration's lack of action. During the public forum, Dunnavant presented the "Umoja Initiative," a list of five demands developed by the leadership of the black community at UF. They include:

-- 1. An official statement disseminated to all students, faculty, and staff describing the events surrounding the blackface incident and the University's response to said actions.

-- 2. A formal apology from the students who dressed in blackface.

-- 3. All Greek organizations should be required to incorporate a cultural competency training component into their orientation sessions provided by Multicultural and Diversity Affairs.

-- 4. A cultural competency component should also be incorporated into the general undergraduate curriculum as a requirement.

-- 5. Finally, we recommend an addendum be added to the UF Student Code of Conduct that explicitly defines blackface and derogatory representations of ethnic and racial minority groups as hate speech, and an adequate framework for sanctioning students and university-affiliated organizations that condone and/or excuse such actions.

The "Umoja Initiative" was proposed again at the UF Division of Student Affairs Town Hall Meeting hosted by UF administrators later that same week. The fraternity that held the costume party and all main UF administrators were mandated by the university to attend the meeting.

At the beginning of the meeting, Professor Patricia Hillard Nunn gave a short presentation on the history of blackface and how those stereotypes have developed and expressed themselves in the 21st century. Afterward, more than 50 students addressed not only the blackface incident, but the institutional and systemic racism that people of color face everyday on campus.

While this is just the beginning of a long battle to win true racial equality in higher education, an open discussion on the racism that exists at the University of Florida has been long overdue. Anti-racist organizing is setting a new precedent for students' expectations from a "flagship" university, and is giving birth to new ideas of organizing around education reform.