Opinion: The two Bristol students who were accused of ‘blacking up’ were not being racist

A student argues his case

Fancy dress in recent times has become somewhat of a touchy subject with accusations of racism and insensitivity being levelled at some revellers.

That is exactly what has happened to two students at the University of Bristol who, after photographs of them dressed as a character from the Netflix show ‘Orange is the New Black,’ surfaced and subsequently garnered much criticism.

It is confusing to see why such accusations have been made given that the character they both dressed up as is of European descent and their apparent ‘blacking up’ appears to be an instance of too much makeup being applied (perhaps that was their intention).

It may be that they are wearing cornrows – in spite of the fact that the character in the show wears the same hairstyle – and if it is then those that critics should accept that they may not make prohibitions on the hairstyles that some may choose to have.

Its also important to consider the intent of these apparent racists: it is unlikely that someone dressing up for a party would do so with malign intent. Its hard to imagine an individual, so incensed by their contempt for those of non-European descent that they would wish to exhibit this contempt in their dress – this is to say nothing of the fierce criticism they would receive if this was the case.

Some may say that the issue is, perhaps, that we live in a society in which some see actions like these as acceptable and this fancy dress debacle is an example of that. Well, to such a view one would suggest a softening of their cynicism – fancy dress of this sort (or of any sort for that matter) is unlikely to constitute an instance of racism. Unless, for instance, the girls had dressed like gollywogs.

A photograph of the author

There is an underlying concern that I approach with some trepidation due to its contentious nature: it is that there appears to be a double standard. Namely that it elicits more uproar when the ‘perpetrators’ of apparent racist acts are of European descent. Why is it that these students in particular – who are not in racist fancy dress at all – have received so much criticism?

I myself have seen many students of non-European backgrounds dress in all sorts of cultural vestments – native American headdresses, rasta hats with fake dreadlocks, bindis – and the photographs of them have not been circulated around social media sites with people accusing them, or the institution that they are a part, of racism.

The two have spoken out and defended themselves for their choice of costume – something they shouldn’t have to do.  One of them said (and I commend her courage in saying this), ‘Equally, even If I was trying to darken my skin-tone, am I not allowed to? Does it really look like I’m trying to mock black skin?’ She quite clearly sees the ridiculousness of the accusations leveled at her; if it was the case that her intent was to mock would she not be honest and say so?

In my experience – if it counts for anything – those who are open with their racism don’t tend to deny it when criticised.

The two have been called to meet with a senior member of staff, a measure that is wholly unnecessary. They haven’t been racist and if their have bought the university’s reputation into disrepute it is because of some who cry racism when there hasn’t been any racism at all. Hopefully, all of this will blow over.