Blackface offendees should understand their framework for interpretation is not the only one

To the Editor:

For many millennia, my ancestors have used the swastika as a sacred, religious symbol. In Sanskrit, the root word “svasti” means “well-being” or “good luck.” About one billion Hindus worldwide recognize the swastika as a holy sign — and that doesn’t even include Buddhism or Jainism, in which the swastika is also extremely important and sacred. The swastika is not limited geographically — it can be found in the homes of Hindus (and others) the world over, even here in America.

In 1920, the swastika was also adopted by a racist group entirely unrelated to Hinduism. Since then, the most prominent symbol of Nazi anti-Semitism has been the swastika.

In his letter “Diaz failed to arrive at why blackface was problematic” (11/14), John Hannon states, “White vaudeville minstrels used blackface makeup as they spread vicious stereotypes […]. Anyone wearing blackface mischievously is guilty of flippancy towards the incalculable damage caused by the stereotypes blackface [it] is inextricably linked with.” By this same logic, one might well conclude: “Racist Nazis used the swastika as they spread hatred. Anyone drawing/displaying/respecting the swastika is guilty of condoning the Nazi hatred with which it is inextricably linked.”

Unlike the swastika, blackface probably has no religious significance. Both, however, are mere symbols — and symbols, as constructs within a particular framework, are not universal. It is very easy to imagine one individual drawing a swastika with pious reverence and another individual seeing that drawing with extreme discomfort or even fear.

For being part of an institution that prides itself on its diversity, Yalies would do well to remember that their particular framework is not the only one that exists in this world. There are other frameworks, in which a symbol of hatred could have no real significance whatsoever … or maybe even be a sacred symbol.

Yalies would also do well to remember that education means learning about, but not necessarily adopting, other frameworks. If you did not know that Hindus consider the swastika sacred, then I hope you found my story informative and educational — but I sure don’t expect you to begin looking upon swastikas with religious reverence. In fact, I don’t even expect you to stop looking upon swastikas with extreme discomfort or fear (if that is how you viewed them before reading this).

Blackface is just a symbol, and it is a symbol of hatred only within certain frameworks. Further, I am not obliged to adopt said frameworks. Nonetheless, I do not support the use of blackface, for the same reason that I do not, say, prominently showcase a swastika as a pendant. It is not hateful for me to trigger that symbol within my framework, but once I know that it is discomforting and hateful within other frameworks, it’s just plain foolish for me to do so.

To those very personally affected by the usage of blackface on Halloween, I respectfully implore you to remember that, in our diverse world, yours is not the only framework that exists. Hate is a strong word, and the accusation of hate is a strong accusation. Do not mistake unfamiliarity or foolishness for hate. Unfamiliarity and foolishness are undesirable, but hate is just evil.

Sudipta Bandyopadhyay

Nov. 15

Bandyopadhyay is a senior in Silliman College.

Comments

  • Anonymous

    I find this to be a very uninformed and contradictory argument. You yourself say that eventhough a swastika is not offensive in your framework (and I understand that it is not), you understand that it is a deeply offensive symbol to others therefore you don't display your swastika prominently and of all the Hindus I know, I've never seen them display a swastika prominently.
    You are uninformed when you attempt to equate a swastika with blackface in terms of it being productive in other contexts. In what context is blackface a positive symbol and do you know that if another context for blackface were to exist, that those perpetuating it on campus knew of the positive context? I just don't know if you could possibly say that blackface has a positive connotation - especially in the American psyche.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you! Much needed!

  • Anonymous

    This argument totally misses the point.

    We all know that blackface and swastikas are symbols whose meaning is derived from context. It may be that in your particular "framework," neither of these symbols is offensive. But the "framework" we're talking about here is American history of the last 200+ years, the current politics of racial tension, etc. Frankly, I don't know what you mean when you say that you're not obliged to adopt this "framework"--you go to Yale, so like it or not, this is the world you live in. That is, the mere fact that you're getting a liberal arts education at an American university suggests, in some sense, that you DO choose to adopt this "framework" in your life.

    Even if you do truly feel divorced from the cultural, political, and historical contexts in which you operate on a daily basis (ridiculous, I know), you'd still have to be pretty damn insensitive to wear blackface around.

    This is my main point--even in the face of your groundless argument--that it might be non-offensive to wear blackface in some personalized "context" with no basis in reality--you'd STILL be a complete a****** to wear blackface. It's plainly racist and disgusting, and any Yale student should know that.

    I am Jewish, and if I saw you wearing a swastika around campus, there's a good chance I would try to knock some sense into you. I don't think the analogy between a swastika and blackface is perfect, but if you tried to defend yourself by arguing that swastikas aren't offensive in your particular "framework" for interpretation, do you really think that would or should be persuasive to me? Context isn't the only thing; flagrant insensitivity just cannot be rationalized.

    As for your argument that the wearing of blackface might reflect "unfamiliarity or foolishness" rather than hatred, I don't necessarily disagree. But you seem to miss the point that unfamiliarity or foolishness, in this disgustingly racist context, is also blameworthy.

    If someone wore blackface as part of a costume in some other part of the world, I might think you had a better argument. But we live in New Haven, and the bottom line is that there really is just no excuse. Either you're plainly racist, or you're just an insensitive a******. Take your pick.

    To clarify, I don't think the blackface-wearers should be subjected to mob justice, but I certainly don't think there are any rational bases on which to defend what they did.

  • Anonymous

    I agree that symbols mean different things in different contexts. Blackface may not be offensive on Mars but on an elite New England campus, or anywhere in the United States for that matter, it is offensive. We are very much living IN the context in which that symbol has significant power.

  • Anonymous

    I don't agree with Sudipta's argument, but at least it's thought-provoking. The comments section is fantastic for a lot of reasons, but one of them is that it shows how people get shot down immediately for suggesting something that doesn't mesh with the "correct" interpretation on campus.

  • Anonymous

    I think this article is very well said. I'm sorry for many of the comments that take the "if you think differently than I do, not only are you wrong, you're an idiot and / or you're malicious." It's ironic that the people speaking out against racism are some of the most mean-spirited on campus. Really, these comments are so angry. It's obvious that your intention is to provide a perspective that would help the situation. Emotionally healthy people know that, whenever they are angry or furstrated, imagining the situation from other perspectives helps to soothe those feelings to a point where they can calmly and respectfully deal with the situation constructively while preserving the dignity of the other person. (Solving conflict is almost impossible if both sides can't retain their dignity.) But even if I disagree with you (I don't), I really do value the fact that you are making a sincere effor to help the situation. If I make a error, I wouldn't want any of the people who have posted a comment on this wall bringing it up; I'd want someone who could do it kindly and trust that I'm making the sincerest effort I can.

    The reason Yale doesn't feel like a community is not because of racist incidents. The reason is that we don't know how to deal with racist incidents. The goal is to get back to a point where we can embrace those who were previously divided from us. It's okay to disagree, but shame on those who are this immature. It's time to grow up. It's time for those who get so much glee out of being so blatantly mean and disrespectful to finally start acting like adults. Racists are certainly a part of that group, but as evidenced in these posts, they are a very cmall part of that group.

  • Anonymous

    This article as well as these comments have good intentions and good points. It's an understandable shame that we so often let our frustrations control our discussions. As a result, we end up hurting people unintentionally. Even the later comments on this wall, which admirably point out that putting people on the defensive typically does not help to change things, seen to attack or "shoot down" the earlier comments, which voice the honest concerns of frustrated students. I also often find myself wanting to lash out rather than think constructively, but doing so rarely helps the situation. I agree that this comment wall can be a great tool or a hurtful one. Unfortunately, since it is designed for an immediate response, the comments generally reflect (sincere and understandable) emotion rather than considerate, rational thought. I've found that it's generally best to take a few days off before responding to anything.

  • Anonymous

    "It's ironic that the people speaking out against racism are some of the most mean-spirited on campus"
    Indeed!, and its also very ironic that those groups that are always screaming tolerance are the least tolerant of other people's ideas.

  • Anonymous

    Is this letter a joke? I know they took analogies off of the SATs, but somebody help me out here:

    Nazi swastika : Hindu swastika :: racist blackface : ??

    Does there exist some form of blackface totally unrelated to the racist tradition that I'm not familiar with? The writer certainly doesn't bother to tell us what it is.

  • Anonymous

    The writer clearly is uninformed and misses the point. The use of Blackface historically ( both in the U.S. and globally) has been used to demean and disempower dark skinned people of color. Blackface is a demonstration of control and power over and against persons of color. Similar to the symbol of the Nazi Swastika and the noose, the intent of blackface is purposefully designed to threaten and subjugate. Morevover, its use is further designed to imbue the dominant group with a sense of superiority and racial entitlement.

  • Anonymous

    Hmm, so the offenders promote "a sense of racial entitlement" (prevoius post). And this is not demonstrated by many of the multicultral groups at Yale?

  • Anonymous

    Seriously -- this is a completely meaningless analogy. Why would the Daily even bother to print this? It's gibberish. The historic imagery of swastikas has nothing whatsoever to do with blackface, which has never been used for anything at any time other than a demeaning representation of blacks as hilariously inferior, less-educated, less well-spoken people with dark skin.

  • Anonymous

    As a yale alum, it is sad to see that times have not changed. There are still racist students that claim ignorance as an excuse for insensitivity