Student Blackface Column at Binghamton Leads to Protest Outside Newsroom

A column in the Binghamton University student newspaper defending the use of blackface during events such as Halloween spurred an organized protest earlier this week outside the paper’s newsroom.

In the piece, Pipe Dream columnist Julianne Cuba criticizes the recent commotion and media coverage surrounding actress Julianne Hough’s blackface costume. For Halloween, Hough dressed as the popular black character “Crazy Eyes” from the Netflix show “Orange is the New Black,” in part by painting her face black.

According to Cuba, a BU senior, Hough’s face paint was purely an attempt to more accurately match up with the character she was portraying. Cuba compares it to an individual donning orange body paint to depict an Oompa-Loompa from “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.”

As she contends in the column, headlined “Dressing as Another Race Isn’t Always Offensive,” “By creating racist claims out of something so innocent as a Halloween costume, we are further perpetuating race as an all-inclusive issue when it doesn’t have to be. Had Hough dressed as President Barack Obama and donned a mass-made mask, which of course is black like the president, nothing would have come of it. Had a black person dressed as the Pope and painted his face white, again, nothing this severe would have come of it. Our reaction to Hough’s costume is nothing short of racism itself.”

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The reaction to Cuba’s column has been nothing short of combustible, leading to an event editors confirm is “a turning point in Pipe Dream’s history.”

Column critics deem the analogy between Willy Wonka characters and modern-day minorities as disgraceful. One commenter: “Oompa-Loompas aren’t real, and that’s about the most offensive comparison I’ve ever seen in my entire life.”

Others are chiding Cuba for seemingly indicating America stands as a post-racial society. A separate commenter: “Yes, we live in 2013; yes, we live in a country with a black president serving his second term; yes, we are all ‘equal.’ But to truly believe that race is no longer an issue is so incredibly and pathetically ignorant.”

Some also declare the Pipe Dream as ignorant and irresponsible for allowing the piece to run. As one BU student said about the opinion section: “It’s not a bathroom wall; we need an editorial policy.

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Angry online comments morphed into a real-world protest Monday evening in the hallway outside the Pipe Dream office. According to a campus radio report posted by the paper (to avoid conflict of interest re: reporting on itself), a group of more than 50 students and faculty gathered there in a scene one editor called “highly emotional.”

After top eds. came out of the newsroom and read a prepared statement, the protesters engaged with them in an “informal airing of grievances … which eventually developed into a dialogue. Tensions were escalated by the large number of comments presented at once by the crowd, still amassed in the hallway.”

Along with a push for the paper to apologize and immediately fire Cuba, the protesters demanded editors “establish a leadership position at Pipe Dream specifically assigned to recruit writers from various cultural groups.”

In an editorial response published yesterday, the paper’s leadership declared a commitment to increasing staff diversity. As they write:

This was the first time in recent memory that Pipe Dream has been protested in this fashion, and while the event was uncomfortable for all of us, it was also a wake up call. … The column that gave rise to the protest does not reflect the collective opinion of our staff, but we question whether or not we would have published this piece if we had a more diverse staff. We think of ourselves as the voice of the student body, and after Monday’s experience, we realize that to be that voice, we need a staff that fully represents the student body.”

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Editors point out that previous campus-wide calls for staffers have yielded few minority students, leading to a newsroom homogeneity that is tough to shake. In their words, “We know that this is a feedback loop, where diverse students are less compelled to join a staff that lacks sufficient diversity.”

In a separate piece, Cuba also apologized:

“Elaborating on the similarity between an Oompa-Loompa costume and a human being was a mistake. But it was also horribly misconstrued to the point where many believe that I was actually stating how a black person and a fictional character are the same thing. I severely apologize for the way that comparison came across. … Like all of the commenters, I also do not believe that we live in a post-racial society. But I strongly feel that as a nation that is constantly progressing, we need not be scared to talk about race, because that is what perpetuates its divide.”

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