A white South Dakota man paints his face brown, puts on an Afro wig, kneels, and hangs a sign around his neck saying, “Will stand for money.” Next thing you know, he’s on KSFY, that Sioux Falls paper, AP, Teen Vogue, and Black Sports Online.
Let’s get clear: Cole Paulson of Brookings included SDSU in his Twitter profile tagline before he locked it down, but according to SDSU, he is not a current student at my alma mater, and SDSU hasn’t yet stated for sure whether he ever has been a Jackrabbit.
That’s encouraging, because I’d like to believe anyone smart enough to attend South Dakota’s best university is also sufficiently culturally with it to recognize that white people don’t do blackface. Let’s turn to Vox‘s 2014 essay on the topic, consulting professor of culture, gender, and race studies David Leonard:
…today, blackface reinforces the idea that black people are appropriate targets of ridicule and mockery and reminds us of stereotypes about black criminality, and danger. This, says Leonard, can serve to support implicit bias and discriminatory treatment and in areas from law enforcement to employment [Jenée Desmond-Harris, “Don’t Get What’s Wrong with Blackface? Here’s Why It’s So Offensive,” Vox, 2014.10.29]
Reinforcing implicit bias and discriminatory treatment while mocking Colin Kaepernick for protesting the deadly impacts of such bias and discrimination—Paulson piles insult upon insult.
Yet Paulson professes ignorance of the generally recognized cultural impact of white guys in blackface and apologized via KSFY:
I was ignorant to the fact I was being racist and did not know the implications as to what I was doing. I had zero racist intentions and I deeply apologize to anyone I offended [Cole Paulson, statement to KSFY, 2017.10.28].
He repeated his lack of knowledge and ill intent to that Sioux Falls paper:
I will be completely honest and tell you I was ignorant to the fact as to painting my face like that was racist,” Paulson said. “It was in no way my intention to offend the African American community, and I have read many articles and documents since to educate myself on why it was wrong of me to do what I did. I also never left the confines of my home with that paint on my face. I was contacted almost immediately about how it was wrong and proceeded to wash it off before I went anywhere. I wholeheartedly apologize as I feel horrible about my ignorance and offending many people I respect” [Michael Klinski, “Man Apologizes After Black Face Costume Causes Outrage; South Dakota State Responds,” that Sioux Falls paper, updated 2017.10.30].
Dr. Leonard says Paulson’s intent is irrelevant:
Your innermost thoughts don’t change the impact blackface has on the people of all races around you, or the way it reinforces stereotypes and the idea that blackness is, at best, a joke.
“In many ways, one’s intent is irrelevant,” said Leonard. “The harm, whether it’s harm in terms of eliciting anger, or sadness, or triggering various emotions or causing [black people to feel] both hyper-visible and invisible at the same time, is there. When someone says, ‘I didn’t mean it that way,’ well, their real question should be not ‘Did I mean it?’ but, ‘Am I causing harm?'” [Desmond-Harris, 2014.10.29]
…and Paulson’s ignorance is part of the problem:
“The ability to be ignorant, to be unaware of the history and consequences of racial bigotry, to simply do as one pleases, is a quintessential element of privilege. The ability to disparage, to demonize, to ridicule, and to engage in racially hurtful practices from the comfort of one’s segregated neighborhoods and racially homogeneous schools reflects both privilege and power. The ability to blame others for being oversensitive, for playing the race card, or for making much ado about nothing are privileges codified structurally and culturally.”
…The question, to ask yourself if you claim ignorance is, he said, “Why do you not know, and what have you done to make sure that you continue to not know?” [Desmond-Harris, 2014.10.29]
Don’t like Kaepernick? Go ahead, say so. But don’t do it in blackface, or you’re only proving Kaepernick has a lot of deeply ingrained racism to protest.