Break Free

Reflecting on the blackface incident at Whitworth University can help us change our own role in ending systemic racism

Break Free
Caleb Walsh illustration

Spokane can't seem to get away from the racism that binds every brick stacked upon brick in this town. It is not unique to Spokane, but we are having a harder time shaking it off.

Of course, we had the bomb threat four years ago during the MLK march, the Rachel Dolezal fiasco, and most recently the blackface that several soccer players from Whitworth University thought would be morally acceptable to don. Let's focus on this one incident and the aftermath.

On any social media post by the local news related to the blackface incident at Whitworth University, there are hundreds of comments that focus primarily on calling out the people who have taken offense to the blackfacing, and calling out the university for doing something about it. In my opinion, the reaction in defense of the blackfacing is as harmful as the original incident. The comments have ranged from "stop being so sensitive" to "these girls aren't racist" to "America has turned into a bunch of wussies."

To review, blackfacing was a way that white people dehumanized and justified the continued social, physical and economic subjugation of black people in America. (Redfacing Native American people is used for the same purpose; think the NFL in our nation's capital.) Fast-forward to the present day, as these Whitworth students attempted to portray themselves as members of the Jackson 5, and we may believe that blackface no longer plays its historic role. Sadly, despite how far we have come, the data across the nation shows that certain groups are not doing as well as others in income, education, college attendance, health outcomes and police encounters, to name a few categories. From what I've seen, these groups are doing everything they can to change these outcomes; just visit any of our local community organizations serving marginalized communities. Despite these efforts, the data shows that equity has yet to be achieved.

The fact is that blackface is as much a mockery and dehumanization as it has ever been, especially in light of those outcomes. Maybe more so, because we think that things have changed so drastically, when really things are only better camouflaged. It's what we call systemic racism, where no one is really "acting racist" but where certain groups are left out of the decision-making points that determine how our systems work, which directly correlates to how successful a given group will be in those systems.

There are many of us who work every day to help build equity in our systems and community, but that's not enough. Most people would agree that racism is bad. But sometimes actions and defense of those actions, no matter how well-intentioned, not only come from a place of privilege but also can be construed as the very definition of racism. The history and stench of racism is harder to pull away from than we ever thought, but it's possible to do so. Luckily, there are good people willing to do what is right by having the compassion, education, and fortitude to deeply understand and be willing to change how racism plays out in everyday interactions.

At the end of the day, we all have a choice regarding the dignity and respect we show those around us. We have a choice regarding breaking the cycle of inequality. We have a choice regarding breaking out of the role racism gave us, whether that is as a "disempowered" person of color or as someone born with the privilege of the dominant cultural group. We all choose every day whether to live up to our role — or to break free from it. ♦

Tara Dowd, an enrolled Inupiaq Eskimo, was born into poverty and is a survivor of the child welfare system. She now owns a diversity consulting business and is an advocate for systemic equity and a believer in justice as a force that makes communities better.

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