Students say issues of race ‘plague’ UF campus

Published: Thursday, November 1, 2012 at 10:50 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, November 1, 2012 at 10:50 p.m.

In an emotionally raw town hall meeting, numerous University of Florida students said Thursday that an incident involving racially charged costumes exposed bigger problems at the university.

One speaker said she was followed on campus before being called a racial slur. Several others said they were racially profiled by university police or treated differently by classmates or instructors because of their race.

“I think it’s important to understand that these are not just isolated incidents, but that they speak to larger issues that plague the university campus,” said Justin Dunnavant, an anthropology graduate student and officer with the Black Graduate Student Organization.

More than 450 people attended the meeting at UF’s Reitz Union. It was prompted by the circulation on social media of a photo showing two white fraternity members in costumes that evoked the blackface makeup used in minstrel shows.

“An entire race or culture should not be reduced to a Halloween costume,” said Shamile Louis, a junior sociology major.

The photo was taken at a “rock stars and rappers” party held last week by the Beta Theta Pi fraternity’s UF chapter. It showed two white fraternity members wearing dark paint on their faces and bodies along with baseball caps, gold chains and sagging pants.

The students who wore the costumes issued a statement apologizing for the incident, saying they didn’t know the history of blackface. Beta Theta Pi chapter President Ethan McMahon said at the town hall that the fraternity would work to help make the campus more accepting to diverse cultures.

“We really do want to be part of the process of finding a solution,” he said.

The meeting started with Patricia Hilliard-Nunn, an African-American studies professor at UF, giving a presentation on the history of blackface. She said the practice of minstrel performers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was being echoed in modern costumes.

“In the past there was a problem and there’s a problem today because people have never learned about it,” she said. “They don’t even understand where it came from and it’s not acceptable.”

The town hall follows a packed Student Senate meeting Tuesday when members of the Black Graduate Student Organization called for changes in response to the incident. Speakers repeated those proposals Thursday, including cultural competency training for students and defining representations of minorities as hate speech in the student code of conduct.

Some speakers at the town hall questioned cuts to scholarships for urban high school students and a program supporting first-generation college students. Others questioned why UF had an African-American studies minor but no major.

A few mentioned the shooting of a black graduate student by UF police in 2010 and the recent punishment given to black fraternities for hazing. A member of one of those fraternities, Leonard Thompson, said he thought a double standard was at play.

UF President Bernie Machen emailed all students about the hazing incidents, Thompson said, but just sent a letter to the Independent Florida Alligator about the blackface incident.

“We need the university to take a stance that is consistent and fair,” he said.

Correspondent William Kennedy contributed to this report. Contact staff reporter Nathan Crabbe at 338-3176 or Visit for more stories on the University of Florida.

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