JOHANNESBURG (AP) – Two White students in South Africa who painted their faces dark to portray Venus and Serena Williams at a costume party have been accused of racism in a country whose painful history of white rule is still vigorously debated.
Stellenbosch University said Thursday that it was investigating the case after being informed about a photograph on Twitter that showed two of its students posing as the tennis stars. It noted social media reaction that mentioned “blackface,” which was common in old American minstrel shows featuring white performers as stereotyped black characters.
The university said it disapproved of any action that could cause offense but noted “various views and opinions” about the matter and did not want to jump to conclusions pending the outcome of the investigation.
The photograph shows two men in sports clothes, holding a tennis racket. One, in a mini-skirt, is wearing a blond wig. Their faces and arms are smeared with a dark substance.
In a statement, the two students and another student who posted the photograph said they aimed to portray two sports stars without “malicious or racial intent,” and that they regret their error in judgment.
Their action “has been associated with ‘blackfacing,’ which we now know is a disparaging practice used to portray offensive racial stereotypes, and we cannot stress enough that this was not our intent,” said the students, who identified themselves as Ross Bartlett, Mark Burman and Michael Weaver.
They said they were attending a Sept. 20 birthday party where people were encouraged to dress up as successful twins.
Some students at Stellenbosch University think the three students involved in the costume controversy should be expelled, while others dismiss the incident as a mistake that should not be taken seriously, the student council said.
The council condemned “blackfacing” and said a disciplinary panel should evaluate a case that has touched on old racial sensitivities in South Africa. The country held its first all-race election in 1994 at the end of white rule, known as apartheid.
“We acknowledge that there is a great deal of unresolved hurt, reaching far beyond the actions of these individuals,” the council said.