America, we need to talk.
Not one, not two, but THREE elected officials in Virginia are knee-deep in blackface controversies at this very moment. Ralph Northam, the Democratic governor of the state denies that he appears in a now-viral image from his yearbook page of a man in blackface alongside one in a KKK costume, although he previously apologized for being in said photo.
However, in a bizarre press conference, where my man Ralph was legitimately about to moonwalk before his wife told him not to, he admitted to once “darkening his skin” while dressing up as Michael Jackson for a dance concert.
First off, let me point out that using the language “darkening skin” in place of “wore blackface” seems to be the equivalent of “racially charged” rather than flat-out racist. It’s pretty annoying that media outlets actually run stories with either of those watered down terms.
In lieu of Governor Northam’s blackface fiasco, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, a fellow Democrat, felt inspired to share his own Blackface submission. He had once darkened his skin to attend a party as one of his favorite rappers, Kurtis Blow.
Thomas K. Norment Jr., the Republican majority leader in the Virginia Senate is also under fire as he was apparently the lead editor of his college yearbook, which had a plethora of blackface and racially-charged slurs.
I was born in 1990, so maybe I’m just too young to fully grasp how ubiquitous blackface was back in the day. But, damn, costume parties in the 80’s sound hella racist.
The most bizarre part of all this to me is that these high ranking elected officials went all this time without this being a story. These photos were so normalized at the time, that there seemed to be no issue immortalizing them in official school yearbooks. And, as big of a scandal as they are causing right now, they were so insignificant to the perpetrators, that they never gave them another thought, and never thought to get ahead of the situation as they were never called out.
In the modern era, between the expansive reach of social media and the presence of “cancel culture,” it’s hard to imagine these incidents going unnoticed. For example, when Gucci recently released a weird face sweater that kinda resembled blackface, they were quickly called out. But, i’m wondering if America is any less racist and more understanding of the dark history of minstrel shows and blackface depictions that dehumanized African-Americans, allowing them to be treated as subhuman, or simply under a bigger microscope.
As we wrestle with this thought and with the national spotlight at least temporarily on blackface, l leave you with some recent words from Marc Morial, president of the iconic civil rights organization, National Urban League:
Not by accident, the rise of the minstrel show coincided with the rise of the abolitionist movement. The portrayals were intended to dehumanize Black people, to sabotage any nascent empathy for those held in bondage.
For white people in much of the country, the demeaning stereotypes of the minstrel shows were their only exposure to Black life. The minstrel shows functioned to solidify the concept of white supremacy at a time when support was waning for the inhumane institution of slavery. The stereotypes – lazy, hypersexual, violent, incapable of social grace – persist to this day and are at the root of the inherent bias that infects our institutions.
So prevalent were these characters, so powerful was their role in establishing racial hierarchy, that the name of one character, Jim Crow, became shorthand for the entire system of racist suppression and terrorism that followed the collapse of Reconstruction.
Read his full essay, ‘Blackface is a flaunting of White Privilege’ here.