Is Painting Face Black Like Obama Racist?


During a mock election and debate at Moundridge (Kan.) High School on Tuesday, students played the roles of the presidential candidates in order to take part in a faux debate prior to a school-wide election ( Mock The Vote 2008).

The student playing the role of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) had his face darkened with paint or some other similar substance.

I shot the above photo while covering the event for my paper, The Ledger, which is the local newspaper for Moundridge.

My question is does the face darken classify the student as racist? Or racially insensitive?

A knee-jerk reaction would be to say no because Obama is in fact black and the student was trying to play a role.

However, the mayor of Arkansas City, Kan., go in trouble for doing a similar thing when he, too, painted his face black during a special fundraiser event.

The NAACP stepped in and caused a large brouhaha.

Long story short, the mayor had to attend sensitivity training as a result of his actions.

(The long story can be read here, here, here, here, here and here.)

The actions of the mayor and this high school student are comparable.

Should the student be reprimanded for his actions? Or should the country learn to take a joke and not be so hypersensitive?

If the student playing Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) had dressed himself up with something such as a walker and shuffled across the stage all hunched over, would that just be funny or ageism that stabs at the fact McCain would be the oldest president ever elected?

I don’t have an absolute answer for these questions. I just think they are worth asking.

Of course, from a journalism standpoint, I do have another question.

How should a journalist play the face darkening?

Should it be the story? Or should it just be a minor detail within the story of the actual event?

I have an answer for that.

I think it should just be a minor detail in the story, something that is worth reporting without being made into the main story of the day, which is how I wrote the article.

If someone, or some organization, takes offense to the actions of the student and causes an uproar, then that would be when I would play the facing darkening as a major story because then there would be a news peg.

Doing it the other way would result in me creating news.

At times I can admit that reporters create the news, such as when investigative journalism takes place.

However, I would be hard-pressed to find a way to claim investigative journalism if I exposed the possible racial issues or poor taste in humor of a high school.

This is just a case of possible poor choices by a high school student. If it turns into something more, I will cover it then.

Over all, I thought the event was neat and an interesting civics lesson for the students of both the high school and middle school.

It taught the students about the candidates, about the privilege of being able to vote in a democracy, what it takes to be able to vote and how important it is to take part in the democratic process.

I applaud the ideas and goals behind the event, but my questions linger as I ponder the implications of the actions of the student.

I keep going back and forth about if I think face darkening within that context should be a racial issue or just a joke that doesn’t need to be worried about.

The high school principal denounced the actions of the student and said he didn’t see why the student had to bring race into the event.

I think that might just say it all.

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About toddvogts 834 Articles
Todd R. Vogts, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of media at Sterling College in Kansas. Previously, he taught yearbook, newspaper, newsmagazine, and online journalism in various Kansas high schools, and he ran a weekly newspaper in rural Kansas. He continues to freelance as a professional journalist from time to time. Also, Vogts is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), the Journalism Education Association (JEA), and the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC), among others. He earned his Master Journalism Educator (MJE) certification from JEA in 2022. When he’s not teaching or writing, he runs his mobile disk jockey service and takes part in other entrepreneurial ventures. He can be reached at or via his website at

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