Blackface is Questionable, But Bullying is Wrong

University of Oregon law professor Nancy Shurtz ignited a firestorm because she wore blackface at a private Halloween party. No, that’s not quite accurate. Shurtz set the kindling beneath her. Someone else tossed the spark.

Anyone in the room could have asked her about Dr. Damon Tweedy, whose book she had recently enjoyed. Instead, one of the guests snapped a photo and shared it on social media. Flames ensued.

Shurtz has since apologized, but as far as I know, the guest who posted the photo has not. Shurtz has been placed on administrative leave, pending further investigation. The president of the university has condemned her costume, and petitions have been circulated calling for her dismissal.

It’s enough to make one long for the days when Eugene City Manager Jim Johnson forbade a Christmas tree in the Hult Center because of its religious connotation. We were a laughingstock around the country then, but nobody’s livelihood was at stake.

If and when Professor Shurtz returns to work, she will have to face 23 UO Law School faculty members, who urged her in a public letter to resign immediately. I’m guessing she will think twice before attending another costume party.

Every costume is a joke. “Look at me — I’m dressed up as somebody I’m not!” (Lady Diana never trick-or-treated as a princess.) But not every joke is funny.

Every joke teeters between what’s true and what’s not. There’s always risk involved, and not everyone will get every joke. In fact, if everyone gets it, it’s not really a joke at all.

We should all let the university’s Office of Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity complete its investigation, but I can’t see that Shurtz is guilty of anything more than telling a joke that fell flat. Some thought her joke was unfunny. Others thought it was insensitive and outrageous, but that’s more of reflection on them than on her, especially if they didn’t sit down with her and talk about it. Her blackface was racial, but not racist.

Eugene has always struggled with taking itself too seriously, despite plenty of practice laughing at themselves. Where else can a man who calls himself Frog support himself by selling joke books?

What other university taught novel writing and then published the students’ collective work under a pseudonym? Ken Kesey arranged to have “Caverns” published under the name of O.U. Levon, which is “Novel UO” backwards — get it?

Emeritus professor Jerry Diethelm is currently gathering support for the Eugene City Council to formalize what has already happened without anyone’s permission. He wants Eugene’s downtown Broadway Plaza to be renamed Kesey Square, in spite of and because Kesey was never square. It’s all part of the joke.

I was part of a joke that is now enshrined in our own public library. To raise money and awareness for the new library, we staged a bidding war between the Comic News and Eugene’s S.L.U.G. Queens. We competed to secure the naming rights for a first floor bathroom. Where but in Eugene would public bathrooms get naming rights? (If you don’t know how that story ends, go to the library and see for yourself.) It was fun and it got people’s attention. Jokes are good for that.

I’m sure that Shurtz was hoping for some attention, but nothing like what has occurred over the past ten days. She’s been vilified, threatened, and bullied. If she was hoping to create a teachable moment, she got more than she bargained for.

The lesson has not been about the African American doctor and author. It’s become about us — how brittle and untrusting we’ve allowed ourselves to become. I’m sure a professor with three decades of experience would welcome any conversation to clear up any confusion, but others — including many of her colleagues and one anonymous photographer — rushed to judgement instead.

As a privileged white male who pulled a prank or two on this town and got away with it, I can’t ask everyone to lighten up. But is it too much to ask for people to sit down and talk together?

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) published the Comic News in Eugene from 1995 until 2005. He writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.