Racism doesn’t belong at the sits fest.

Bella Forsgrén Photo by: Hanna-Kaisa Hämäläinen

This week’s sits fest have sparked lively conversation in Jodel, as the event had bouts of racist behaviour and language. An anti-racism week has been celebrated this week, which emphasizes the responsibility of the individual to act correctly when faced with racism. Everyone is responsible for their own attitudes and choices. Not everyone who acts in a derogatory manner does so deliberately. Thus it is important to educate yourself and put yourself in another’s position. Because of this I’ve delved into why a blackface-makeup and the n-word never belong at a fun sits fest. Intervening in racist language or actions is not a sign of being butthurt, lacking a sense of humor nor being a killjoy but rather working towards genuine equality and a fun sits fest for everyone.

A few words on my sits fest-history. During my fresher times I went to the sits fest of my own subject association frequently. The atmosphere was generally cheerful, but also that of respect for one another. There was the odd case when certain hazings or sits fest-songs went a bit overboard and not everyone was having a good time anymore. In these situations it is paramount that the atmosphere is kept open-minded and safe. During the sits fest of my own subject association I could say out loud if a certain custom or convention offended me, because the familiar organizers and subject association atmosphere were strictly opposed to discrimination. Giving straightforward feedback is not easy or even possible for everyone or in all situations due to the fear of being branded butthurt or a party pooper. All of us carry the responsibility to take in feedback in a correct and serious manner.

I could safely participate in the events thanks to an open-minded and anti-discrimination atmosphere. I have however experienced unpleasant moments as well when the organizers have not interfered with racist singing or jokes. In last year’s JYY sits fest a song was sung that didn’t come out of the organizer’s sits fest-booklet and contained the n-word. I felt distressed and this year I avoided the sits fest stating I was busy. Racism should not affect a person’s intentions to participate.

Why is the blackface-makeup racist?

The blackface-makeup has a grim history that is impossible to dismiss. Its racist roots go back to 19th century theatrical plays for which white actors painted their face black with shoe polish to depict a black person. The characters were very stereotypical and often mockeries of dark-skinned people.

For historical reasons the blackface-makeup is strongly connected to colonialism, slavery and white supremacy. Thus the racism of the blackface-makeup is based on its very historical context even if the play utilizing a blackface-makeup did not directly mock dark-skinned people.

Regarding the blackface-makeup it is often heard that there were no racist intentions or the performance was meant to be entirely harmless. When discussing the offensiveness of the blackface it is not relevant whether the authors of the performance meant it as racist or not. What is relevant is whether the affair can generally be interpreted as offensive and if it is experienced as such. Blackface is racist simply because it is experienced as racist.

Words matter

Language has power because it has the capacity to categorize and name things, phenomena and people. Language has the power of definition, which we can use, shape or oppose. No diction is neutral, for it carries meaning.

Few admit their racist behaviour or speech but rather dismiss it as a joke. Racist jokes are not often perceived as racist and those who intervene are easily derided as a hardass or a humorless person. These jokes however have racist values behind them, which are reasserted even by humoristic talk.

Jokes that strengthen stereotypes or demean people for their part yield and justify the inequality of different groups and insult those targeted by the jokes. Even if the joke is not meant to insult, it still does.

Why the n-word should not be used

The n-word is not a neutral choice of word in any context. The n-word refers to the times of colonialism when black people were regarded as merchandise, wild and stupid. Using the word sustains the thought that white people are above others and so fabricates more inequality and precedence between people. This is why, among other reasons, the use of the n-word insults especially the black demographic, but also many others.

Defending the use of the word seems to be almost a matter of the heart for some. Often the use of the word is justified by saying that it used to be a derogatory word but isn’t one anymore. Many have defended the use of the n-word among other words in a certain sitsfestsong by saying that the song primarily criticizes and laughs at someone else than dark-skinned people. This still does not justify the use of the n-word, as it is derogatory in all contexts.

The problem with the public discussion on the n-word is that those derided by it have seldom had their voices heard and so the targets of racist speech have not been able to share their views.

During the past few years the use of the word has been so hotly discussed in Finland that it is hard to imagine someone not being aware of the contentiousness and offensiveness of the word.

Sits fest are an important and unique part of student culture. When well organized they are a communal event that everyone feels safe to participate. Let us together take care that everyone has a good time at the sits fest – intervening in racist behaviour is both a responsibility and a right everyone has.