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Blackface at Chiditarod Sparks Outrage, Apology from Organizers

By Kyla Gardner | March 9, 2015 4:10pm | Updated on March 10, 2015 8:35am

CHICAGO — Chiditarod participants dressed in blackface at Saturday's race prompted online outrage and an apology from the event's organizers on Monday.

Chiditarod, now in its 10th year, is a shopping cart race slash pub crawl in which particpants dress up shopping carts like floats and themselves in costume. It raised more than $30,000 for charity Saturday.

But the positivity of the event was "sullied," Nik Allen said, when he noticed a fellow participant dressed in blackface at one of the race stops.

"[My reaction] was, 'Wow, this is offensive in so many ways,'" Allen said. "It was disheartening."

The man, a member of the "too soon"-themed team, was dressed as Bill Cosby, the comedian accused of sexual assault or rape by more than 30 women (Cosby has denied the claims).

Allen snapped a photo of the participant and tried to address the issue with him, but the man "dismissed it," Allen said, as did his teammates when Allen approached them later, at the Chiditarod awards ceremony.

The team also featured a Jackie Robinson West Little League player in blackface and a cart decorated as Bruce Jenner's car — the former Olympic champion was recently in a car crash that killed one person. The car also had nipples on it, an apparent attempt to make fun of Jenner's reported transition. As a Facebook commenter pointed out, one of the costumes was Mork (a Robin Williams character), with a noose around his neck.

Kyla Gardner discusses the organizers' response:

Facebook/Mark Worthley

Allen sent his concerns about the man's blackface makeup to the race's organizers Saturday.

The Lincoln Square resident wondered, "How did this get through? How did this not get addressed?"

Chiditarod board member and organizer Diane Back said in a phone interview that the men were asked to remove the makeup early in the day, but they did not. Without a clear policy, organizers did not do more on raceday to address the issue, she said.

The costume drew some ire online, and on Monday, Chiditarod's organizers apologized in a blog post after reaching out to Allen.

"[T]his situation fell short of what CHIditarod deserves, and we sincerely apologize for the harm this caused," the letter said. "CHIditarod takes a firm stance that celebrating creative expression is never an excuse for cultural insensitivity or the perpetuation of systemic racial injustice."

The team was disqualified, and Chiditarod organizers are drawing up policies to address communication within the organization and how it will handle behavior deemed harmful in the future.

"This is an event that we feel strongly benefits the community, but if it does harm while it's trying to do good, then that's something that needs to be addressed," Back said. "I think we can all learn from this. The real crux of any incident is how you respond and react and what you do next."

Allen was glad the organizers reached out to him and publicly admitted their mistake, he said.

Outside of having "gone back in time and disqualified them immediately, it was the best I could have hoped for," he said.

Back added that she hopes the men who donned blackface and their team members will not be "harmed or gone after."

"My hope is that they understand the impact of what their choices have upon others," she said. "That goes the same and much more so for me and the [organizers,] so we can take accountability and move forward from here."

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