Blackface: A Halloween That Ripped a University
The student leader stood before reporters and cameras. The bottom of the HUB steps seems like an unlikely place for a press conference, yet the situation was an odd one. The antics at his Halloween party, which had garnered national attention, had finally caught up to him. Even though he had maintained that the party fell within his First Amendment rights, the firestorm his party had created had led him to offer an apology.
“While we stand staunchly behind our freedom to express ourselves in a lawful manner, after contemplation, we understand that the content of the Website was offensive to members of our community.”
Brian Battaglia, chairman of the College Republicans, was referring to guests at his costume party dressing in many offensive costumes. The most notorious of these was another Republican and former undergraduate leader’s blackface makeup, which Battaglia shared on his website and said it resembled a particular African-American student.
This was 2003. Eleven years later, Penn State’s undergraduate leaders are still debating whether blackface is an allowable costume for Halloween — ironically, mostly driven by some of UPUA’s members in College Republicans. And while we’ve come a long way as a university on this issue in these 11 years, the history is still worth recounting.
The early 2000s were are different time for blacks and conservatives at Penn State.
For African-Americans, overt racism had tainted the the start of the decade. Death threats were sent to the president of the Student Black Caucus and to an African-American member of the Board of Trustees. Someone threw stones at black women, and in another incident, a vandal had desecrated a dormitory with a swastika. In protest, black students and their allies formed a sit-in in the HUB-Robeson Center, which became known as “The Village.” Twenty-six students were arrested when they ran onto the field before the Blue & White Game in 2001 to demonstrate against the death threats.
Meanwhile, the campus conservative movement was a bit more brash than it is today. College Republicans hosted Conservative Coming Out Day in 2003, an event that mimicked National Coming Out Day for LGBT students. (A few years later, the club tried to set up a campus-wide “Catch an Illegal Immigrant” game.) One College Republican of this time period was Jason Covener, who was charged with computer tampering in the office of the Undergraduate Student Government (predecessor of UPUA) in 1998. At the time of his arrest, Covener was USG’s Senate President.
Only four percent of the student body was black, and College Republicans had no African-American members.
The Halloween Party
Battaglia hosted a Halloween party at his off-campus house. Many of the guests were from College Republicans and USG. Covener, who had returned to Penn State to complete his education, dressed in blackface and carried a bicycle chain. Another guest reportedly dressed as a Catholic priest, and another as a Klansman (it was later determined to just be a lazy attempt at a ghost). One of the most graphic outfits was “an ‘over-sodomized fraternity pledge’ with strategically placed artificial bloodstains on his trousers and face.”
This could have been the end of the story for Battaglia and his soiree. This was before the omnipresent and omniscient era of social media. No one from an underrepresented group had protested the party for over a month. That changed when Battaglia shared photographs of that night on his personal website in early December.
It was not only the fact that guests had dressed in appropriate costumes that led to the firestorm. Battaglia did not make it any easier for himself with the comments he added to each image. He used Covener’s blackface costume to mock USG Vice President Takkeem Morgan, who had been prosecuted for stealing a bicycle earlier in the year.
“Apparently Takkeem was released long enough to come to our party. We thank the local police department.”
Another comment he left was under the image of the fake Roman Catholic priest. The cleric had a bottle of beer in one hand, and a bottle of liquor in his other.
“I guess they drink before they go get to the boys.”
December 4, 2003: The Fallout Begins
The reaction against Battaglia’s postings was swift and fierce. Tiffanie Lewis, the president of the Black Caucus, denounced the photos and demanded Battaglia’s resignation as chairman of College Republicans.
“It’s not an isolated incident. We believe that it’s part of the contentious racial climate at Penn State,” she told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on December 4.
A student in the Black Caucus notified Takkeem Morgan of the photo of his impersonator.
“My initial reaction was that it was very, very disrespectful,” stated Morgan. “They were playing with a history that was a very, very tragic one, and it’s something that people every day try to get past.”
Bill Mahon, who was Penn State’s spokesman, called the photos “an embarrassment to the entire university” and requested an apology from Battaglia.
“They apparently spent the evening skewering just about everybody except themselves,” he said.
Battaglia stood his ground.
“The bedrock principals [sic] of the conservative movement generally and the College Republicans in particular, are personal liberty and freedom of expression. The College Republicans stands … staunchly opposed to the mindset held by the radical left on college campuses across the country. Their viewpoints, which posit that any action or speech that gives discomfort to a vocal minority should be cause for censorship, persecution, or demands for public apologies, are the greatest threat to liberty in our time.”
A rift emerged among Penn State’s conservatives. The College Republicans voted in confidence of Battaglia “for ‘vision and leadership’ and thanked him ‘for his continued and steadfast service during stressful times for the club.'” Covener dismissed the attention the controversy was receiving. “I think it’s much ado about nothing . . . I think anytime a white person puts on blackface, there are certain elements, especially here on a university campus, that will look for any reason they can to be offended and will use it as an opportunistic means to push their agenda.” However, the images repulsed one College Republican, Cathy Carre, who resigned as treasurer of the organization. Matthew Ritsko, a senator from USG, also resigned from the group.
“The actions they’ve taken haven’t reflected the message they should be representing. I don’t feel they’re in the best interest of the conservative movement,” Ritsko told the Collegian.
Matthew Valkovic resigned his position as Vice Chairman of Younger Americans for Freedom, another conservative club at Penn State, after YAF declared its support for Battaglia.
“The portrayal of Takkeem in blackface and the use of a hood as a Klan member was not freedom of speech, it was hate speech.”
Other College Republicans at Penn State offered apologies.
Tiffanie Lewis condemned the College Republicans’ resolution and it disgusted her that members of USG were among those who backed Battaglia.
“Some of those students on the pictures are on decision-making committees,” she stated. “I would like to see their resignations as well.”
President Graham Spanier emailed the student body of University Park to express his displeasure in the Halloween party. He called the images “patently offensive to anyone with a modicum of decency.”
“[W]e are saddened and troubled by his efforts to defend the photos as being acceptable to his student organization. Yes, they are protected by the First Amendment, but that protection does not mean it is acceptable by any appropriate standard.
“Penn State is committed to ensuring respect for the dignity of all individuals within our university family. Racism in any form is unacceptable. The first of “The Penn State Principles” is “I will respect the dignity of all individuals within the Penn State Community.”
For some time, the University’s response did not faze Battaglia, who criticized the administration for holding onto his “copyrighted” images.
“In order to legally possess these pictures, you must have my expressed written consent. Since you lack this permission, I advise you destroy them immediately.” Furthermore, even though he had pulled the photos from his website on December 4, he indicated that it was not pressure from the Black Caucus that caused him to do so, and he reserved the right to repost them.
Confrontation and Correction
The images caused confrontations between College Republicans and the Black Caucus on campus. On December 4, a debate between CRs and College Democrats was called off because Black Caucus members had protested outside the room. Battaglia claimed a student of the Black Caucus threatened to kill College Republicans, but Tiffanie Lewis asserted her member “was voicing unsafe feelings by telling the College Republicans he would not be a victim.”
A meeting between the College Republicans and Vicky Triponey, Vice President for Student Affairs, over the weekend was held to mitigate the situation. Battaglia expressed concern for his members’ safety.
“Our members and the officers and myself really do feel threatened almost more than [Black Caucus does]. I think they’re using this to their political advantage and the threats are actually against conservatives at this point.”
The Black Caucus, Allies (a LGBTA group), USG, and Inter-Fraternity Council also sent representatives to the meeting.
Lewis, meanwhile, said it was disrespectful for College Republicans to claim they were the victims for a controversy they had started. Black Caucus Vice President Anesha Ali echoed this sentiment.
“The College Republicans are, frankly, trying to shift the blame from themselves, which is a shame. Through all of this, we would expect they’d gained some knowledge of the problems this situation caused.”
On Tuesday, December 9, Battaglia gave the aforementioned apology on the HUB steps.
The Reckoning in USG
Five USG members (three senators, a Supreme Court justice, and the governmental relations director) had attended Battaglia’s party and the body condemned student leaders for their presence at the party. However, no representative was implicated in wearing an offensive costume for Halloween.
Before a packed assembly room, President Ian Rosenberger recommended that USG create an ad hoc committee to investigate whether the three senators should be impeached. Rosenberger said that the three had a duty to denounce guests who wore offensive costumes at the party, and it was irrelevant that none of them donned the outfits in question. The Senate went on to approve the committee’s formation.
Rosenberger did not call for the resignations of the other two USG officials.
An unexpected turn happened when Cangelosi announced she was withdrawing from the university. She admitted she no longer felt safe at the University, and accused Graham Spanier of putting her in this position when he linked to the Penn State Directory in his campus-wide email. The Collegian noted that the Directory was included in every email, and Spanier did not specifically mention her. Cangelosi skipped classes and experienced sleep deprivation; the newspaper did not document any threats against the Senator.
“Quite honestly, I’m very scared of the situation and how it has escalated,” she told the Collegian.
Cangelosi alleged that Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs Art Carter told her parents she was “imagining things.”
Matt Mildes, acting parliamentarian for USG and a gay student, did not show sympathy for Cangelosi.
“I’m glad that you’ve been given an insight to what the students who have been targeted feel every day . . . You’re being treated the same way that I’ve been treated my whole life.”
The senators still had to face Rosenberger’s ad hoc committee. Battaglia, a former USG senator, called the review group “illegal.”
“Myself and others at the party are not malevolent baby killers. We’re nice people. He’s a nice guy.”
(Battaglia’s remark did not sit well with pro-choice activists.)
On January 20, 2004, after six hours of discussion, the USG Senate overwhelmingly voted not to impeach one senator. One month later (which the Collegian called too long of a time), even though he was not impeached, the Senate would not exonerate another. This came after James Ziegenfuss, USG’s LGBT affairs director spoke against pardoning the representative.
“I am here to express my disgust at the idea that a body meant to represent all students in the university is considering exonerating the inactions of this representative.”
Here We Are Today
Eleven years later, Penn State still finds itself questioning whether blackface is still an appropriate Halloween costume.
Earlier this month, Ted Ritsick, an at-large representative on UPUA and the secretary of the College Republicans, opined that UPUA would violate students’ First Amendment rights if it purchased “We’re a culture. Not a costume” posters for Halloween.
“This university campus is no place for hate and bigotry, but I’m worried that this promotes a broader message . . . That message is that if somebody is offended by something, than you shouldn’t say it. That’s censorship. Both the national government and our student government have no right to do this.”
Five other representatives voted with Ritsick against the bill, which easily passed the legislature.
Minority groups on campus did not appreciate Ritsick’s remarks and one week later, UPUA held a “town hall-style committee of the whole” to discuss racial sensitivity. Terrell Finner, National Panhellenic Council president, called Halloween “a scary time on campus for black students.”
“We need your organization to be sensitive about this kind of stuff and to work with us and represent the needs of the students you represent.”