Arizona State University students wear blackface during football games

  Dianna M. Náñez, The Republic | 11:06 p.m. MST October 10, 2014


Chinenye Okudoh, a 20-year-old African-American student at Arizona State University, looked at the photo of a schoolmate’s face painted black and felt ill.

Okudoh does not know the student. She was not at the game where he cheered from the packed student section inside Sun Devil Stadium on Sept. 25.

But she remembers what she was thinking when she saw the image on Facebook.

“I was so appalled and disgusted,” Okudoh said. “I just felt completely hurt.”

It was a “blackout” game, where ASU encouraged students to wear the same black-colored clothes to show team spirit for the college football players when they wear their all-black uniforms.

“A lot of people, a lot of the comments, are, “What’s the big deal? It’s just a black face,’ ” Okudoh said. “What they don’t understand is that there is major history behind blackface.”

Blackface was created in the 19th century by White minstrel actors who darkened their faces with burnt cork, and painted their lips with white or red stain to circus-clown proportions. They played to offensive racist stereotypes not only with an exaggerated appearance but by acting ignorant, blundering and lazy.

Okudoh and other students in the ASU Black African Coalition want the university to ban blackface at ASU games and hope to include a history on the issue in a university life class that freshman would take when they enroll. She is vice president of the coalition but was speaking as a student, not for the coalition.

ASU officials said they are aware of the students’ concerns and the university’s athletics department is open to future changes. But, for now, they have no plans to ban students from painting their faces black at games.

“There isn’t any policy change taking place yet,” said Thomas Lenneberg, a spokesman with ASU athletics.

PNI 1011 met asu blackout
Chinenye Okudoh, a 20-year-old biogenetics major, is a student leader with the Black African Coalition at ASU who wants university officials to ban students from wearing blackface to games. Two students with painted black faces were at a September ASU football game where students were encouraged to wear black clothes to show team spirit for the team which wore black uniforms. She poses on the Tempe campus on Friday, Oct. 10, 2014.
(Photo: Charlie Leight, Charlie Leight/The Republic)
“We’re always open. Whether it’s the students or parents or former players, we’re always trying to work with them,” he said.

Christian Portaro, one of the handful of students who painted their faces at last month’s blackout game, said he would do so again to show team spirit. He posted the photo on Instagram.

The students painted their faces black but not their lips in blackface fashion.

“I painted my face black because it was our ‘blackout’ game,” he wrote in an e-mail to The Arizona Republic. “And for our maroon monsoon game, I plan to paint my face maroon.”

Tim Schodt said he considers himself a hard-core Sun Devils fan. Schodt said he painted his face black to show school spirit. He said other ASU students drew criticism a few years ago when they painted their bodies black for a blackout game.

“I’m trying to help clear up that this is not blackface,” he said. “This is taking face paint and putting it on your face. This is not a terrible misrepresentation of African-Americans. This is a simple football tradition.”

Schodt said he reached out Friday to an offended student to explain his motives. Although Schodt hopes ASU does not ban face painting at games, he said students would benefit from a cultural awareness course as freshmen.

Okudoh doesn’t care if the handful of students with painted faces at the blackout were aware or were oblivious that blackface is rooted in a racist stereotype. She wants ASU to take steps now to ban the practice at games.

“It would be an immediate statement that they’re (ASU officials) showing that we don’t agree with this and we don’t support this,” she said.

ASU’s lack of immediate action feels weak to some African-American students.

Kyle Denman, president of the Black African Coalition and an education major, said racism on ASU’s campus and in Arizona is often a daily struggle. He said he spoke to The Republic as an individual, not on behalf of the coalition, which, he said, must have its comments to the media approved by ASU.

Denman, 28, sees the game-day blackface incident as a final straw after a January controversy when a few ASU fraternity members dressed in hip-hop clothes and drank from watermelon cups. The students posted pictures on Facebook with the hashtag #blackoutformlk, and said the display was a tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. Day. ASU expelled the fraternity.

Denman said if ASU was serious about cultural awareness, university officials would not wait to ban blackface.

“They’re turning a blind eye to ignorance, and instead, letting students call it being school-spirited,” he said. “This isn’t just about being Black. I would have a problem with students being ignorant of our Latino, or Native American, or any students’ culture.”

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