Op-Ed: An intersectional analysis of the blackface Snapchat

Monday, March 26, 2018 - 6:19pm

Dear communities of the University of Michigan,

In light of the current news regarding students donning blackface to mock #BlackLivesMatter on Snapchat, there is an uneasy silence around the apparent presence of the Asian/Asian-American student in the photo. As students and scholars of Critical Ethnic Studies and Asian/Pacific Islander American Studies, we present this letter to offer an intersectional analysis of the image as a means to better understand the layers of mal-intent present in the photo. We voice our concerns in solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter, Black and African-American students, in hopes of opening pathways for healing and justice.

The black masks in the Snapchat appear to be part of an Asian beauty fad that cleans the pores (the blackness of the mask stands for the cleansing properties of charcoal and also refers to the removal of blackheads), meaning that the “joke” intended by the Snapchat works operates on at least two levels. The students effectively make fun of both #BlackLivesMatter and the Asian beauty product, a kind of humor that relies on notions of Asians as being ignorant and indifferent to American racism. And though the face mask itself is not intended to be used for blackface, the caption of the Snapchat turns the mask into one. The image turns harmful for the ways it mocks the important work of #BlackLivesMatter and its trenchant critique of anti-Blackness, police brutality, mass incarceration and the racist judicial system of the United States.  

Even though the Asian/Asian-American student is essentially silent and, in a way, made into an accessory in support of the racist Snapchat, the student is nonetheless complicit in constructing this racist image. The ease with which he stands next to and in support of LSA sophomore Lauren Fokken activates a deep history of the “model minority” myth and its roots in anti-Blackness and white supremacy, and more recently, efforts to derail #BlackLivesMatter by Asian-American communities through the support of Peter Liang and his murder of Akai Gurley.

The image further erases the history of coalitional activism in the 1960s and 1970s when the very identity “Asian American” arose in solidarity with the civil rights movement. Given the acts of violence and erasures that the Snapchat enacts with regards to the racist criminal justice system of this moment, police brutality and the mass incarceration of Black Americans, we wonder about the punitive measures that this racist act seems to warrant. What response do we desire from the two students that would alleviate the pain of these variously affected and subjugated populations at the University? What response from the University would be satisfying? After all, this is a matter of social justice and academic integrity.

One of the ways white supremacy works on us is through individualizing acts of violence that effectively reduce systemic issues of inequality into individual acts. When working with such ideas of the individual, the solutions to violence seem to warrant punishment and extrication from the community. However, if we have learned anything from the legacy of the civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam war movement, the anti-poverty movement and the women’s movement, justice works better when it serves to heal communities, to call in the very individuals who harm us in an act of re-imagining what community means. We are left to labor harder to build connections where they seem most impossible, so that we might redirect our anger at the structures that oppress all of us.

Many structural issues come to mind: no alternative processes that achieve the aims of affirmative action, insufficient programs for recruiting undergraduate and graduate students of color, lack of new tenure lines in ethnic studies departments, the insufficiency of race and ethnicity course requirements. The individual acts of racism on campus speak to far larger structural issues of inequality and reflect the current climate of inequality at the University. The justice that we seek is one that moves toward raising the consciousness of our community members, re-evaluating the purpose of higher education as one not geared toward maximizing one’s earning potential or access to pleasure, but toward building a civically engaged community that has an expressed interest in the ethics that govern how we should relate to one another across difference.

In solidarity,

Critical Ethnic & Asian/Pacific Islander American Studies Graduate Student Group

Asian/Pacific Islander American Studies Faculty

United Asian American Organizations Executive Board