An Oregon State University football event that was intended to raise school spirit had some students feeling things had taken a bad turn, after others decided to wear black face paint and Afro-style wigs to express their pride.
And as another "Blackout Reser" event approaches for this Saturday's game, students are hoping to create a dialogue around racial sensitivity.
Initially intended to rouse school spirit, the Oct. 6 event at the OSU football game against Arizona was organized by OSU student Casey Grogan. His idea was to encouraging all of the spectators in the visitor's section to dress in black - orange and black are OSU's school colors, and the idea was to create a visual display of support.
But when some students took his idea to the next level and added black face paint and the Afro-style wigs, students such as Renee Roman Nose, a graduate student in archaeology, thought the event had gone too far. An article previewing the event in the student newspaper, the Daily Barometer, featured a graphic of a student wearing black face and body paint, and Roman Nose said she couldn't believe what she was seeing.
"I've got team spirit all the way," she said. "But put an Afro wig and blackface on a white student, and I have a problem with that."
Although no formal plan for a repeat of the event has been announced, a recent Facebook entry that suggested a repeat of the "Blackout Reser" event for this Saturday's homecoming game against Stanford has renewed the controversy.
Roman Nose was upset enough after the first blackout event to write a column about it for the Barometer.
"What do you think it might make a black person on campus think if they see such an article in our student newspaper?" she wrote. "Do you think they feel welcome here? That the OSU environment is friendly or considerate to minority people?"
The column has not yet been published. Lauren Dillard, editor in chief of the Daily Barometer, said she wanted to discuss the issue of the Blackout coverage with her staff.
"I do think the question raised in (Roman Nose's) column is a legitimate one, and one we want to look at," she said.
Dillard said the Barometer article and face-painting graphic was about promoting school spirit, and it did not cross her mind that it would be associated with minstrel-era blackface. Had the thought occurred to her, she said, they probably would have avoided it.
"We are sensitive to the issue now that we are aware of it," she said. "We do want to talk about it."
Wolofbamanaigbo Ovimbundumakua, who is a graduate student in anthropology at OSU, was the first to bring the Barometer article to Roman Nose's attention.
"When I first saw (the photo of a white man wearing black face paint), I thought it was a throwback to the minstrel days of the 20th century, using blackface," Ovimbundumakua said.
Simmona Robinson, an OSU science student, also was concerned.
"Small things, details, like how to completely darken your face in order to 'intimidate' the opposing team can be received as showing team spirit to one group - and utterly disrespectful to another group," she said.
Grogan, who promoted the first Blackout Reser event on the social networking site Facebook, said he was speechless when he heard that some students found the event racially insensitive.
"There was no intent, obviously," he said. "It was meant to bring unity because the team was struggling."
Grogan, who is also a Barometer sports reporter, said OSU students normally wear orange outfits to the games, and he wanted to see if he could get his fellow Beaver fans to break tradition and dress all in black. He said he didn't think any of the students who wore black face and body paint were doing it to intentionally be racist, and that black and orange paint are common occurrences at games.
"Some people paint themselves orange; it's a thing they do," he said. "It didn't even cross my mind that people would take offense."
Grogan is not organizing the upcoming Blackout Reser event.
Larry Roper, OSU vice provost for student affairs, said he also saw the Barometer article and photo, but at the time, took the full body shot to simply be a guide on how OSU students show school spirit.
"I didn't connect it to the historical context of black face," he said. "I think if I just saw a face painted black it would strike me as a minstrel."
Roper met with concerned students Friday afternoon at the Lonnie B. Harris Black Cultural Center to talk about the issue, and said the students have decided to approach the Barometer to begin a dialogue about racial sensitivity.
Roper said the issue was a complex one, because while the concerned students did not object to school spirit or even dressing in black, it was the addition of face paint and wigs that made the expression of that spirit offensive.
"Some people come from a place of not knowing," Roper said, but by bringing the issue out, he hopes that the dialogue will encourage some students to think about exactly how they're expressing their Beaver pride.