A group of faculty members at a university in Ontario's Niagara Region is accusing students who won a campus pub Halloween contest of "racist" behaviour after they wore blackface to dress as the Jamaican bobsled team.

In a letter on the Facebook page of Brock University's labour studies department, three faculty members and one student wrote that the incident has caused "concern and anxiety on campus," particularly since the four students won the $500 cash prize.

"Students, staff and faculty at Brock University need to understand that such costumes are not 'just a joke,'" said the letter signed by Larry Savage, director of the Centre for Labour Studies, and three other people.

"Regardless of the intent or motivation of the students in question, donning blackface for Halloween is never OK; it is racist, full stop."

The four students were among Halloween contestants at the party last Thursday at Isaac's Pub.

The letter also said the response from the Brock University Students Union (BUSU) was "halting, at best," and that there's been a "lack of response" from university senior administration.

Student union to take action

Blackface minstrel shows have a history in Niagara, the letter says, adding that they were aimed at white tourists until the 1950s. Blackface also helps "maintain and normalize anti-black racism and systematic oppression," it said.

In a statement on its website, BUSU said it's taking steps to ensure such incidents don't happen again.

It's expanding its workplace safety and harassment training to include equity and human rights training for front-line workers, including bar staff, it said.

It will also ensure that contest entries are vetted, BUSU said.

The students won the costume contest based on audience applause, BUSU president Roland Erman told the CBC. He does not think the winners had malicious intent. 

A student union representative will be on hand at future contests, possibly checking people's costumes as they wait in line outside, to guard against future blackface incidents.

"We can’t go back and change that competition, but we can try to put building blocks in place to ensure for greater oversight," he said.

The union has received feedback from upset students, Erman said, and takes it seriously.

"BUSU recognizes that this was definitely an area of shortcoming this year and in the past."

McMaster University professor: Why blackface is so offensive

The costume may seem innocuous to some, said Bonny Ibhawoh, a professor of African, global and human rights at McMaster University. But it hearkens back to a painful time for black North Americans.

Minstrel shows of the 1800s and 1900s depicted the black community in a negative light, Ibhawoh said. So even when students don't mean any harm, it's important to use such incidents as teachable moments.

"Incidents like this, gestures like this, cannot be seen outside social and historical context," he said. "To understand why this would be so offensive to African Americans or African Canadians, one has to look at the history."

"Go back and watch videos of the minstrel shows of the 1800s and 1900s and see why they were offensive."

Simon Black, a Brock professor and one of the authors of the letter, agrees that this is a time to remind people of the history of blackface.

"A lot of (students) don’t know the history and as educators, I think this is where that responsibility comes in."

Discrimination has no place at Brock, spokesman Kevin Cavanagh said. And the university has encouraged BUSU officials to look at methods at other universities when it comes to screening costumes at the door.

"The university is satisfied that this incident was the result of a lack of awareness, not a lack of sensitivity, and that the participants had no intention of being inflammatory of racially offensive," he said.

BUSU is a self-governing organization, he said, but it is bound by Brock's policies to create a respectful learning environment.

"The Brock student union leadership has denounced this choice of costume as offensive, and has announced a well-defined program to increase awareness on equity issues," president Jack Lightstone said. "I commend and endorse the student union leadership's stance."