Student wears "black face" for Tiger Woods costume, is it racism?

Sorry, timed out. I gotta remember to stop posting at dinner time.

A student at my university came to a golf themed bar event dressed as Tiger Woods complete with brown paint on his face. At the bar an African-American student noticed his face and asked him to leave. The university got wind of it and now the student is facing expulsion for wearing “black face.” The local news ran a short piece on it as well.

A friend of mine and I currently disagree over whether or not the student deserves disciplinary action. He contended that the student did nothing wrong because he didn’t intend his costume to be interpreted as racially offensive, and that the African-American student was oversensitive. I argued that black face is symbolic of a period of humiliation and oppression for the black community, and that it is not the duty of the majority group to choose what is and isn’t sensitive to a minority group.

I think expulsion is a bit much, but I feel that some action should be taken. What are your thoughts? Is ignorance defensible?

I fully agree with your friend.

Well, it really depends on what exactly happened.

“Black face”, as far as I understand the term, describes a particular way of painting your face to appear stereotypically black. It is not the same as just putting on makeup to appear black. I can see a problem with the former, but not with the latter.

It really depends on the context of the situation. I don’t particularly see that he didn’t think that it would be offensive is that relevant – at my university, a fraternity was caught having “African-American” themed parties (serving fried chicken and watermelon, and generally playing off stereotypes), and they said that they, too, meant no offense and were not racist. It’s also altogether possible that it was blown out of proportion and truly not a racist stereotype to a reasonable observer.

What’s really important here is how it was done. Eddie Murphy has played white characters (like a Jew in Coming to America) – that doesn’t make him an anti-Semite. There is a certain negative connotation with whites donning makeup to appear black, but that doesn’t mean it should be prohibited.

But is this really “black face”? Black face is a caricature with white around the lips to make them look larger and accent them. It is a perversion of clown makeup. It doesn’t appear that this is what the kid was doing.

If the really student desired to look like Tiger Woods (was this a costume event?), then darkening his skin is perfectly acceptable as long as how he does it is not a caricature. Shoot, it could be considered a homage to the greatest golpher alive. Otherwise, he’s just some white kid in a Nike shirt.

Let’s look at it another way. What if the kid was playing the lead role in Othello? Would stage makeup be innappropriate to make him look more like a Moor? Are members of one race not allowed to portray members of another race in the arts?

“Black face” is racist and offensive. Stage makeup to darken the skin is not.

Once in high school we had the assignment to give a soliloquy as a character from a piece we’d read that quarter. Costume was encouraged.

We’d read a story by Nathaniel Hawthorne in which the devil appeared. Smartass that I was, I jumped at the opportunity to play the devil, and dressed accordingly.

All in black clothes – check. (Black cape for extra evil vibe)
Twisty wooden staff – check.
Face black as coal – check.

I crushed up some burnt wood and formed a charcoal powder and smeared it liberally into my skin until I was coal-black. And got on the schoolbus and went to school that way.

Nobody said anything to me about it except my girlfriend, who refused to talk to me until I washed my face and who didn’t talk with me about it afterward.

At the time, I thought she was being silly: I wasn’t making a racial caricature. Now, I’m not so sure that she was being silly.

Expulsion never entered into it.

“Blackface” is definitely a sensitive issue, and I don’t think it was “oversensitive” of the African-American student to be upset about it. But I also wouldn’t jump to the conclusion that the white student meant any kind of offense: after all, Tiger Woods basically looks like any other young athletic man, and probably the only way the student could think of to indicate who he was supposed to be was to change his skin color. (It would probably be much easier to effectively impersonate, say, Dennis Rodman using other costume features. :))

However, the implication is that the noticeable thing about Woods, the thing you’re expected to identify him by, is that he has brown skin. This is quite understandably an unpleasant implication for brown-skinned people. Some more clueful person should certainly explain to this student why many people would find that distasteful, but based on what I now know of the case, I wouldn’t think any university disciplinary action was called for—certainly not expulsion.

Of course, on a deeper level, there is pervasive and offensive racism in this situation…but it’s not among the people at the bar event, it’s in the history of club and pro golf. After all, why would anyone think that “brown face paint = Tiger Woods costume”? Well, because Tiger Woods is the only African-American golf player that most non-golfers (and even many golfers) have ever heard of. And why is that? Largely because the worlds of professional and championship golf were so hostile to black players for such a long time. We no longer have “the” black baseball player, “the” black football player, or “the” black tennis player, but Woods is still “the” black golfer in many people’s awareness. So if this student does get expelled, I think he should sue the PGA. :wink:

Blackface was done to exaggerate and accentuate the wide white eyes and smiling teeth that the performer makes. It is and insiduous mask in that it wasn’t done to help express a range of emotions, but of only one: the smiling Negro happy to stay in his place.

I don’t see how the university has any business doing anything at all in this case. Did the incident in question take place on school property or at an official school function? If not, then it’s none of their business. The kid could have stood up and proclaimed white superiority and the university should have nothing to do with it, as long as he isn’t posing a danger to others. I do think that the standards should be much higher for university staff, or if the events occured at a school function. But really, people are entitled to their opinions, no matter how stupid or bigoted they are.

Personally, I’d say that unless he was actually wearing the exaggerated blackface makeup referred to above, it’s not offensive.

I’m beginning to believe it my be me that is overly sensitive. I agree with all your points, but I still maintain that a white person wearing black paint on their face even for non racist reasons invokes painful memories for the African-American community. Naturally, there is no way for me to know for sure, so I would like to ask the African-American dopers directly if they are offended by a white person painting their face black for any reason.

Hey, I went as a Japanese woman to a Halloween party once. Dressed in a yukata and dyed my hair black. Does that make me racist? I don’t think so, and unless this guy had made himself up using “Blackface”, then I don’t think he is either.

If someone was going to dress up as me, I’d expect them to paint freckles all over their nose, and maybe stick a cushion up their shirt. Otherwise how would anyone realise it was me?

I think some people are just a teensy bit too sensitive.

Great post, **Beeblebrox **. You really clarified the issues.

Here are some related questions:

  1. What’s the proper standard for a finding of racism? Is someone’s feeling determinative? In that case, might not anything might be called racism?

  2. Would it be offensive for a white person to masquerade as a Black under all circumstances, independent of the blackface issue?

  3. Is it helpful or harmful to minorities to make a fuss over issues like this?

  4. Is the university being cowardly?

  5. Does this sort of issue harm race relations?

I think wearing blackface is it poor taste and offensive. However I really see no reason why your friend should face any disciplinary actions.


I agree that it’s in poor taste, but that (absent other factors) it’s not much more than that. And while college students almost never exhibit poor taste, I don’t see it as an expellable offense.

It’s poor taste, mind you, because white people masquerading as black people has a long and sullied history. Even if it’s not unethical, it’s impolite. There are other costumes to wear.

There’s not, as near as I know, a long and sullied history of black people dressing up as white people. I wouldn’t see that as nearly so impolite.


I go to the same school as cainxinth and I see he has beaten me to this thread. My take on it was this–from what I gathered, the student was simply dressing as Tiger Woods. I don’t see how it would be racist unless he went around saying stuff like “I just won the Masters, let’s have fried chicken and collard greens!”

Of course this is the same school where people were recently flabbergasted by a stick-figure comic in the school paper. In it, a stick figure was robbing another stick figure. Somehow the robber was black. The first time I saw the cartoon, I didn’t even notice. You really had to look closely to see anything more than a stick figure. People complained that the robber was black and the victim was white. The artist said the robber was wearing a ski mask.

Personally I think there are much bigger problems than what some frat boy wears to a bar and what some poorly-drawn cartoon may or may not represent.

Hmmm, I see cainxinth is from NJ… was this an NJ university? I’m about to graduate from Rutgers, and I know we’ve had stupid PC crap at this school before. I think NJ is especially dumb on these things, personally.

Call me controversial and insensitive, but sometimes I really feel that over sensitivity and extreme political correctness is really hampering us as a species overcoming racism.

I mean, sure, if it was meant in an insulting “blackface” way then that is totally wrong and he deserves to be frowned upon (I won’t speak of punishment because, as FDISK rightly says, the university has no business interfering in non-university events if that’s what it was), but wouldn’t it be nice to live in a world where the colour of someone’s skin doesn’t mean anything?

It seems to me that in some cases just bringing up race issues with any little thing is ensuring people still think in “race” terms rather than “people” terms.

Think about it, there would be no outcry if a guy dyed his hair red to portray a famous red haired person.

Racer1 you beat me to it. I think over-sensitivity is a waste of time, time which would be better spent focusing on real racist problems.

The key question regarding this student for me is has he demonstrated racist behaviour previously? Is he bigoted and offensive in his words and actions? Does he refuse to befriend non-white people?

Talk about making a mountain out of a fucking molehill.

As I said I do think the black face was in poor taste. However I’m more concerned that the student would be facing expulsion then I am over his Tiger Woods costume. Are colleges suppose to be a place of intellectual freedom?


Aping someone’s physical characteristics when doing an impression of them should not be a problem. If Tiger Woods’s skin is browner than the student’s, and all the student had done is to have darkened his own skin, then where’s the harm? If Tiger Woods happened have long, blonde hair, and the student had worn a wig, I doubt there would be a problem.

I bet Tiger wouldn’t mind, too. He comes, as I do, from a family where there is black/white adoption. My sister’s skin is way browner than mine - to her, and to me, it’s just another physical characteristic, like blue eyes, or red hair, or being short or tall.

Sure, use the incident to open a debate about the issues, but I think the university is overreacting.

I can’t believe that this is even an issue. It seems you american really have a problem… a mental one. You are too sensitive. Don’t you realize that treating people with “silk gloves” trying to avoid offending him is actually discrimination? I have jewish friends we make jokes about him. Is he offended, nope Why? because we treat him exactly the same as we treat each other. We always make fun of ourselves. I don’t know what’s the situation with black people in U.S.A. (not many live here, in fact I have never seen one) but I say that:

a) They are oversensitive. That can not be, it would mean that “all black people are the same” that would be discriminating.

b) All of you are really screw up, go to shrink solve your problems.

Don’t be offended I should be the last criticizing considering that my country is the nearest thing to hell on this planet. But I wanted to share what this all discussion mean to an outsider: crazy.