How would you feel if your teacher gleefully posted a throwback photo of him or her in blackface to Facebook? Chances are you would be offended and question how an educator could be so clueless. You might be even more disturbed if the college you were paying thousands of dollars to attend—which had the nerve to use Gandhi’s “Be the change you want to see” quote in the “Division of Diversity and Inclusion” section of its website—simply gave the instructor a slap on the wrist and stated, “We do not punish speech,” as a response to the photo.
Lisa Stillman, an instructor in the biology department at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, put up an old photo of herself and a friend in blackface back in In October of 2016. Allegedly, it was her profile pic (yes, the profile pic). In the offensive photo, they were donning black makeup on their faces, wearing wigs with bones in their hair and one had a pot belly, which looked like she was supposed to be pregnant.
“Haha! We would be sooooooo NOT politically correct these days!!” the friend in the photo wrote in the comments. “That was soo much fun dressing up that year!!”
Stillman commented back: “Nobody knew who we were!” and added, “as long as we didn’t smile.”
One of Stillman’s former students contacted NewsOne to share her story. The student was granted anonymity because of “backlash and threats from students” that may follow.
“I found one of my professors made their public Facebook profile picture them in blackface. I found this appalling and I reported it to Purdue University,” the student said. “Instead of firing Lisa Stillman, the Purdue administration covered it up and told her to simply delete the photo.”
The student reported the photo on November 10, 2017. After 20 days, the student was told the investigation was “completed” and “appropriate action has been taken.”
To be clear, blackface has its roots firmly planted in American racism, including and especially minstrel shows back in the 19th century that featured white actors who painted their faces black to act like slaves and newly freed Black people. It was these minstrel shows that largely contributed to the many negative, racial stereotypes that have been associated with Black people for well over a century.
Purdue University sent the following statement after a phone call seeking comment.
“Purdue received an anonymous ‘hotline’ complaint in November 2017 citing two grievances: one about the way an instructor had reprimanded students to enforce lab protocols, and another about a 2016 Facebook post of a 1974 photo showing the same instructor (then age 12) in a ‘blackface’ Halloween costume,” an email from Purdue News Service said. “The university promptly reviewed these complaints, concluding that the instructor had handled the lab incident in a wholly appropriate manner, and that her personal social media post of an old photo was not harassment under Purdue policy. In any event, what we can say firmly is that, at Purdue, we do not punish speech, particularly when off-campus speech is expressed by an employee speaking as a private citizen.”
Wow, who knew proudly posting a racist photo that looks like something from the Jim Crow South was “speech”?
The student was outraged at the statement.
“Blackface in any form is not free speech, it’s hate speech. How can Purdue advertise itself as a haven for diversity when it protects a staff member who is unable to respect that diversity?” she asked in disbelief. “Instructors are supposed to lead by example, and I don’t think any Purdue student should follow that example.”
Purdue’s homepage has an entire section dedicated to diversity, stating it strives to “Increase and retain the number of historically underrepresented and diverse students, faculty and staff at Purdue” and “create and sustain a welcoming campus where all students can excel.”
A teacher posting a photo of her in blackface is not creating a welcoming environment.
Making matters worse, Purdue’s faculty on its main campus is 81% white and 2.9% Black, according to recent statistics. Maybe if Purdue had more Black faculty it would know that simply telling the instructor to delete the photo was not enough. When a professor at the University of Oregon posted a photo of herself in blackface, ironically also in October 2016, she was suspended for a year. Moreover, no student should ever have to see an educator, let alone anybody, in blackface.
Aside from the blackface, the student who contacted NewsOne also recalled the way Stillman “had reprimanded students to enforce lab protocols” as being problematic.
“She pulled me out of class and told me that she would drop my grade, told me her teacher assistants drive her ‘bat-sh*t crazy’ and then said that she would tell all of my future professors about my behavior, telling me that my ‘reputation would precede me,’” the student said. “This was because I filed a complaint about the teacher assistants she managed and she got angry about it and essentially tried to blackmail me to not speak out anymore. This is what prompted me to look on Facebook and I found the blackface photo on her public profile.”
Purdue, like many white institutions, has a history with racism.
University President Mitch Danielswas accused in October by faculty members of “drawing a false equivalency between neo-Nazis and antifascist activists, and of personally attacking a professor who’s been critical of him in the past. The group says Daniels’s tone recalls President Trump’s initial comment that there was violence “on many sides” of the August protests in Charlottesville, Va.,” according to Inside Higher Ed.
Purdue has also had protests from its Black students and allies.
“African-American and other minority students and faculty at Purdue University in West Lafayette are fed up at repeated incidents of racial harassment, racial slurs and hate crimes on campus. And they’re speaking out forcefully,” PraiseIndy.com reported in 2016. “Nearly 300 protestors gathered in front of Hovde Hall, Purdue’s administration building, to protest and demand seven steps to reduce racial incidents and improve diversity at the university.” Reportedly, the racial incidents included defacing an image of a Black professor with the n-word and “a placard left by protesters as part of a display in front of Hovde Hall was defaced with a racial slur and a stick figure drawing of a body hanging from a tree.”
The FBI said the number of hate crimes reported by Purdue was the second highest for any university in the country, according to the Indianapolis Recorder in 2013. Consequently, it was not a shocker how they handled a teacher posting a deeply racist photo.
A Change.org petition was demanding that Stillman be fired. To date, it has more than 100 signatures.
Whether it’s a university or a major corporation like Dove, promoting diversity without working to achieve it is detrimental, especially when faced with situations like this one. It is hurtful for an educator to be so oblivious to post a vintage photo in clearly racist imagery. However, the larger issue was the school dismissing the image as “speech” and believing that simply deleting the photo from Stillman’s social media was enough. Excusing this behavior cosigns racism at an institution, which is an example students could follow.
That said, maybe Stillman thought she could get away with this abhorrent behavior while teaching at Purdue, which, again, according to the FBI, has the second highest number of reported hate crimes for any university in the country.
A message sent to Stillman for comment was not immediately returned.