A performer donning blackface makeup at a Ferndale youth fundraiser sparked a sharp backlash this week, mirroring a national debate that emerged after celebrity Julianne Hough's highly publicized apology for darkening her skin to dress up as a popular television character.
The North Coast controversy erupted after circulation of a video of Saturday's event, featuring a man in blackface makeup and a dreadlock wig. Similar stories have made headlines across the nation, from Hough's much-maligned Halloween costume to three San Diego high school staff members who were suspended for donning blackface to dress up as members of the Jamaican bobsled team.
Billed as "surprise entertainment," the Ferndale performance came at the second annual Community Homecoming fundraiser, a $25, 21-and-over event at the Ferndale Community Center sponsored by Ferndale Youth Incorporated and the Ferndale High School Booster Club. It featured five men dancing and lip synching to Rick James' song "Super Freak," with one dressed as James and the other men dressed in drag as female backup singers.
The performance was captured on video and posted to Youtube, but was taken down Wednesday, one day after the weekly Ferndale Enterprise newspaper tweeted a link.
Pat Cowan, who co-chairs the Ferndale Community Homecoming fundraising committee and helped organize the event, posted the video to her Facebook page with the note: "OMG what a great addition to the evening." Cowan deleted the post Wednesday, after several comments appeared on her page deeming the video "shocking and disgusting."
Numerous messages left for Cowan were not returned by the Times-Standard's deadline.
An email sent to the Ferndale High Booster Club was not returned, and attempts to reach other committee members and Ferndale school board President Stephanie Koch were unsuccessful Wednesday.
Saturday's event was not an official Ferndale Unified School District function, but proceeds were intended to support athletic and extracurricular activities for the youth of Ferndale, Cowan told the Humboldt Beacon.
To some, the town south of Eureka is steadily developing a reputation for racially charged incidents.
In 2008, then Ferndale High School Principal Sam Garamendi drew sharp criticism from students for removing a Confederate flag off a student's car that was parked on school grounds, sparking a school assembly to discuss the flags and why Garamendi believed they were inappropriate on school grounds.
A few years later, allegations surfaced about a number of Ferndale fans directing racial slurs at each other and using them to taunt opposing players and coaches during football games in 2008, 2010 and 2011. The accusations led to the football team being placed on probation for the 2012 season by the North Coast Section, the body that governs interscholastic athletics in Northern California.
Saturday's performance was especially troubling in light of past events, according to Humboldt State University Bias Response coordinator and sociology professor Jennifer Eichstedt.
"I think it wasn't a very good choice given the history of what's happened in Ferndale," she said. "You just kind of go, 'What were you thinking?'" Jennifer Hughes, a junior English major at HSU, said she was shocked when she saw the video online, not only because of the use of blackface but also because of the depiction of overly sexualized women.
"It was like, 'I'm dressed up like a woman so now I have to act suggestively and seductively,'" she said. "It was appalling. And I think it was really disgusting to see how much people enjoyed it."
A crucial question to ask in this whole debate, according to Ramona Bell, a professor in HSU's Critical Race, Gender and Sexuality Studies Department, is would those attending have found the performance as funny if one man hadn't painted his face black?
"What makes it so funny?" she asked. "That's the issue. Some say this is a post-racial society, but I think this idea that race doesn't matter is really delusional. I mean, would you be laughing if it was just a white guy up there singing Rick James? But you add blackface and a wig, and it's funny? Then where's the laughter coming from?"