Opinion Column

 When Ignorance Leads to “Black Face” mockery of HBCU Students

A controversial photo of a student went viral on social media last week. While controversy is nothing new and going “viral” is what produces views and engagements, the thought of a students’ audacity left many baffled.

Her name is Brooke Merino, she is a freshmen and a soccer player at Prairie View A&M University, a historically black college. Merino is no longer considered the “unique” type of student. She is an athlete, young, vibrant and the type of student that many HBCU’s are making a top priority in their recruitment efforts.

So why is Merino the hot topic of discussion? Merino is a white student, she attends an HBCU, is on a soccer scholarship. She decided to show her “admiration” for her HBCU peers by posting a photo of herself with black duct-tape plastered on her face with the caption, “When you just tryna’ fit in at your HBCU,” she wrote.

The post, which was seen and viewed on Snapchat caused many to be offended, appalled and upset.

Merino eventually deleted the racist post but not before many social media users caught wind of her image and decided to share their thoughts on her offensive behavior.

“There will be no form of racism accepted on Prairie View A&M University’s campus. That’s pure stupidity,” said twitter user “Proudly Black”.

Meanwhile, Janisha Kirby, a student wrote:

“Typing up a petition of why she doesn’t belong at the best HBCU, Prairie View A&M University.”

“Why is she at this school? If you feel like you have (such a) hard time fitting in or whatever, why did she go here? Why did she pick to go here?” said Tatiana Scroggins, a junior at PVAMU.

Students and anyone else who is intolerant of racist, insensitive behavior have the right to be upset and question Merinos motives and integrity.

391644E800000578-3821227-image-m-68_1475589942379.jpgPhoto Credit: pvamu.edu

This wasn’t the first time Merino has posted offensive photos mocking African-American students. The second photo found on her Facebook page, was a picture of Merino with black colored face paint and her pants stuffed with pillows to simulate a bigger butt. A feature commonly seen on black women.

Some may deem this behavior as a form of “flattery” but maybe misinformed about the damage this type of behavior can produce.

Why would a non-traditional student involve herself in such petty, inexplicable behavior on a Historically Black College campus and what should be the consequence?

“My thoughts: this is a very teachable moment… expel her?? No, just allow her the opportunity to understand the depth of blackface,” wrote twitter user LoweBama.

However, many are not buying it as a “teachable moment”.

“By now if you know how to use snapchat, you know #blackface is inappropriate. “Teachable moment” implies this was an honest mistake,”another twitter user wrote.

The President of PVAMU, George C. Wright, released a statement expressing his concerns and intolerance of Merinos behavior.

“As a scholar of race relations in the United States and president of Prairie View A&M University, whose alumni, students, and many supporters have experienced firsthand racial insults in the form of words, caricatures and a wide range of other actions, I know clearly the hurt and harm that can be done from intentional and unintentional acts of this nature,” he said in part.

“Let me be clear that, whether intentional or unintentional, the actions have the same impact, and as a community, we denounce any racial slight whenever it occurs.”

Since the posting, Merino has been removed from the soccer team. However, some feel she should lose her scholarship.

It’s a relief to know that the university is not taking the actions of this student lightly. It also leads to questions and concerns about the influx of non-black students at HBCUs.

How do HBCUs continue to ensure a safe space of learning and culture sensitivity for black students if their priority is no longer African-American students, an issue that many PWI’s already have historically and present day?

Diversity in and of itself is not an issue and should be celebrated. However, it becomes of a concern when the learning environment can potentially become an atmosphere made for African-Americans to feel uncomfortable and culturally mocked as Merino did on social media.

This is not an isolated incident and has occurred at other schools.  On Wednesday, at East Tennessee State, a white student harassed and mocked African-American students at a “Black Lives Matter” rally by wearing a gorilla mask and waving bananas at them and carrying a burlap bag with a Confederate flag on it.   Another incident occurred late September at Kansas State, students who did basically the same thing with mud masks, posting a photo and labeling it, “Feels good to finally be a n———a.”  Those students were expelled from the university.

So how can HBCUs still uphold their purpose behind being an HBCU, which according to the Higher Education act is “to educate African-Americans” and educate students of other ethnicities about cultural sensitivity?

HBCU’s must first and foremost embrace and not be ashamed of their history and legacy and make sure all students know and understand this history. This goes beyond having a founders’ day that’s sometimes not mandatory. These institutions cannot successfully create a space of awareness if they are subconsciously and sometimes directly hiding their history and the HBCU brand.

For example, when a university decides to omit its major demographic from marketing material and remove “HBCU” from its mission statement as a recruiting tactic, it does more harm than good. It sends a dangerous message that blacks are somehow inferior to other students. It also creates false advertisement and brings in a targeted demographic under false pretense.

We must bring back and sustain programs like “Freshmen Seminar” that focus on the history of HBCUs, require an African-American studies course in the curriculum and fully support and acknowledge campus activities that honor and celebrate black culture.

When HBCUs continue to show a sense of pride in its people, particularly African-Americans, other demographics will have more appreciation and respect not just for black culture but black PEOPLE, and help ward off the temptation of making a mockery of it.

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