The University Record, January 25, 1993

Punishment of racial insensitivity a thorny issue

By Mary Jo Frank

Punishing incidents of racial insensitivity on college campuses makes moral sense, says philosopher Anita Allen.

Allen, associate professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center and a U-M alumna, discussed “Why Punish Demeaning Expression,” at a Department of Philosophy Martin Luther King Jr. Day program.

Using a 1991 “Ugly Woman Contest” at George Mason University as her example, Allen explained that the fraternity-sponsored mock beauty contest raised $1,500 for charity.

A financial success, the event was a “disaster as a social event,” Allen said, after a white male contestant dressed as an “ugly Black woman.” Performing in blackface, the student wore a kinky-haired wig with hair curlers. He stuffed pillows under his shirt and in the seat of his pants to denote big breasts and large buttocks.

In response to student complaints about the blackface performance, the dean of the Virginia school banned the fraternity from engaging in social activities for two years. However, the courts decided the dean could not enforce the punishment against the fraternity.

Allen, who also is a lawyer, poked holes in a number of potential arguments against punishing the fraternity, including:

—One has to obey the law, including the First Amendment, which prohibits punishing expression.

Allen noted that many philosophers believe in flouting the law, particularly if it is a bad law. Martin Luther King was famous for breaking laws to further the cause of civil rights. The dean’s initial decision was correct because minority students deserve an educational context where they can learn, she maintained.

—Procedural fairness. The fraternity obtained permission to sponsor the activity in the school cafeteria so it shouldn’t be punished after the fact.

Allen said it appears the students obtained permission to sponsor a fund-raising event for charity, not to do blackface, which she described as a “grotesque form of racial insensitivity.”

—The fraternity members acted in good faith, not realizing the audience would be offended.

Allen noted that society often excuses actions based on ignorance. However, she said, punishing racial insensitivity—like spanking children the first time they put their hands in fire—is one way of teaching people that they are not entitled to be ignorant.

—The mock beauty pageant raised $1,500, which justifies any harm done.

Allen said this argument implies that the educational environment and experiences of Black women are worth less than $1,500.

—Students should be allowed to act out their racial fears and prejudices, even if they are occasionally rude and offensive.

Acting out may have some justification, Allen said, but she does not think the benefit outweighs the harm done to minority women by the depiction of an “ugly Black woman.”

—Acting out is a form of artistic

expression, which should be protected.

The need to protect artistic expression is a difficult argument to address, Allen admitted, but said she believes even some art deserves to be condemned on moral grounds and that it is not unreasonable to do ethical critiques of artistic expression.

Allen limited her call for punishment for inadvertent racial slights and intentional hate speech to campus communities because, she said, of the impact such insensitivity has on the educational environment for minority students.

Although she is not opposed to hate speech codes, Allen said she doesn’t think universities have to have such codes. Enforcement of norms of civility would have the same effect. Members of the university community must take care not to undermine the ability of others to learn, Allen added.