The ethics behind the blackface incident

NEED TO KNOW
  • Bruce Weinstein is an ethics columnist and speaker
  • He tackles the ethical dilemma of the week: What to do when someone makes fun of domestic abuse in blackface
Teens re-enact the Chris Brown-Rihanna altercation while in blackface
Bruce Weinstein the ethics guy

Editor’s note: Dr. Bruce Weinstein, aka The Ethics Guy, is an ethical columnist and speaker. He is the author of “Ethical Intelligence” (for adults) and “Is It Still Cheating If I Don’t Get Caught?” (for teens). He is on Twitter.

Three high school students who re-enacted Chris Brown’s assault on Rihanna while donning blackface as a gag at a pep rally are being called “racist” and “offensive.”

On one hand, I feel the students’ pain. In high school, I, too, draped myself in regalia that is now considered taboo. As a member of the marching band, I wore the Confederate Flag -- our school symbol -- at every pep rally and football game. I never thought anything of it at the time. Now, however, I wonder what it must have been like for the few black students in my school to be constantly reminded of a legacy that had nothing but contempt for their ancestors.

On the other hand, the Waverly High School incident is an example of how something that seems innocent to some -- or even many -- can unwittingly alienate others in the community. Just because we don’t mean anyone harm by doing X doesn’t mean that X isn’t hurtful.

The three young men who chose to make light of Brown’s criminal behavior are no doubt good folks, but it was reasonably foreseeable that their skit would be objectionable both to African-Americans and victims of domestic violence. Blackface is rooted in minstrelsy, a 19th-century form of “entertainment” in which white actors made fun of African-Americans and perpetuated racist stereotypes. Non-white students at Waverly High School make up only 3% of the population there: Why risk making them feel even more marginalized than they may already feel?

But you don’t have to be a person of color or a victim of abuse to be put off by this sort of thing. It’s a good bet that some of the students and parents in the audience were taught to abide by the ethical principle “Do No Harm.” This principle applies to everyone.

Yes, it’s hard to speak up when we observe wrongdoing, but in this case, it would have been the ethically intelligent course of action. Surely there were a few people in the audience who saw the wrongfulness of this performance. Instead of remaining silent, they could have stood up and yelled, “This isn’t funny!” At the very least, they could have spoken to the principal of the school afterward and voiced their concerns in private. By doing nothing, they gave their tacit consent, and that’s not unfortunate -- it’s unethical.

It’s easy to chalk up the Waverly incident to youthful indiscretion, but officials had approved the skit, which represents colossally poor judgment on their part. Waverly Central School District Superintendent Joseph Yelich is to be commended for taking complaints about the skit seriously and -- moving forward -- to promote respect for all members of the school community.

If you're ever in a similar incident, remember the importance of standing up when you see someone doing something that’s just plain wrong.

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