The Cruel and Kind Intentions of Blackface


In the past week, at least five current or former government officials have been confronted with participating in blackface. On Friday, the Virginian-Pilot revealed that Virginia Governor Ralph Northam published a photo of a man in blackface next to a man in a Ku Klux Klan costume in his 1984 medical school yearbook. After the first photo circulated, CBS News reported that his 1981 yearbook at the Virginia Military Institute includes the nickname “Coonman,” a racial slur for black people.

Then, an avalanche of blackface: On Tuesday, after calling on Northam to resign, Virginia’s Attorney General Mark Herring admitted that in college he too “dressed up and put on wigs and brown makeup” to imitate rapper Kurtis Blow. On Sunday, Florida’s former Secretary of State Michael Ertel apologized after the Tallahassee Democrat published a photo of him in blackface from Halloween in 2005. Another Florida politician, state Rep. Anthony Sabatini, is refusing to step down after a high school photo of him in blackface recirculated over the weekend. On Thursday, the Virginian-Pilot revealed that Republican Virginia Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment was the editor of a 1968 college yearbook that features blackface, Confederate flags, the N-word, and other racial slurs. (There’s also the case of New York Democratic state Rep. Dov Hikind, who has been re-elected despite defending his decision to wear an afro and blackface to a party because he wanted to portray a “black basketball player” in 2013).

It is striking to see that, despite the rich racist history of blackface, this form of racism was not just tolerated, but in the circles of these elite white men, it was celebrated. Northam and Norment went so far as to publish the photos in their yearbooks, as if the comedy derived from racist iconography was a highlight of their school years to revel in for years to come. It’s a reprise of the same conversations that play out every Halloween, this time with elected white officials who represent states with long, racist histories.

Last October, on her now-canceled show Megyn Kelly Today, Megyn Kelly asked about blackface, “What is racist?” Her question was genuine. “You do get in trouble if you are a white person who puts on blackface on Halloween,” she said. “Back when I was a kid, that was okay as long as you were dressing up as like a character.” Kelly’s question is at the core of what we’re seeing now: To these white men, darkening skin color was like wearing a costume and even, in some cases, what they perceived to be an expression of admiration for black icons.

The apologies seek to ameliorate the effect blackface has on black people by offering up the intentions that white men had while wearing it. Herring described his decision to wear blackface as a result of “ignorance and glib attitudes,” judgement errors he made in his youth. Ertel, meanwhile, dismissed his blackface as “something stupid” he did “14 years ago.” In the most bizarre apology, Northam condemned the “clearly racist” photo, claimed he was in blackface in the photo, then backtracked that claim by saying he wasn’t in the photo because he remembers wearing blackface in a different incident that year. “That same year, I did participate in a dance contest in San Antonio, in which I darkened my face as part of a Michael Jackson costume,” he said. “I look back now, and I regret that I did not understand the harmful legacy of an action like that.” When a reporter asked him if he could do the Moonwalk, Northam smiled, and entertained the thought until his wife stopped him. The inference from these statements and the incidences they describe is that blackface is something dumb that people do at parties, an exercise in poor judgment, like drinking in excess. But it’s a dumb mistake that white people seem to make over and over again, at the expense of black people.

Blackface is an artifact from slavery-era minstrel shows, in which white people performed blackness for entertainment. As New York Times op-ed columnist Jamelle Bouie wrote, “Beyond simple mockery, the pleasure of blackface for white performers and their audiences lay in the vicarious experience of an imagined blackness—a wild, preindustrial ‘savage’ nature that whites attributed to black Americans.” Though blackface moved from the stage, white people continue to perform it as entertainment in other venues. In an interview with the New Yorker, Eric Lott, author of Love & Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy & the American Working Class, observed that blackface “never seems to die as a collegiate, fraternity activity.” It is a form of bonding that can only exist at both the expense and exclusion of black people.

America is witnessing an uptick of hate crimes and bullying in schools, correlated to the violent frame of Donald Trump and his administration’s racist rhetoric; to Trump, immigrants are “ruthless coyotes,” the exonerated black and latino teenagers in the Central Park Five case remain “muggers and murderers,” and Mexicans are “rapists.” In the midst of increasingly violent rhetoric, it should not be forgotten that racism can also manifest as an expression of pleasure and admiration. The decision to wear blackface is not a symptom of youthful folly, but a choice rooted in white power and privilege, and it’s sobering to witness how many men—both Democrats and Republicans—were elected into office with that worldview.

The question ahead of them is, now confronted with this worldview, what are they doing to change or reform? While there is a public awareness that blackface is offensive—Kelly’s defense of blackface led to her ouster at NBC—this moment illustrates that many white people, including elected officials, stop short of considering blackface as a racist, hateful act that puts into question their ability to govern responsibly and equitably. But as The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus said in response to Northam’s photo, “We feel complete betrayal… These pictures rip off the scabs of an excruciatingly painful history and are a piercing reminder of the nation’s sins.”

While the revelations have generated public outrage, none of the men have lost their elected positions, and white men within the Democratic party are litigating who gets to stay and who doesn’t. But without consequences, it seems as if these men are still treating blackface like a bad joke taken too far, not a hateful act that requires corrective action. As Leslie Caughell, an associate professor of political science at Virginia Wesleyan University, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch, “It’s certainly hard for Democrats to demand that Northam resign but not Herring.”

“Part of what makes what Northam and Herring did so painful is that it suggests a complete lack of awareness of the history of blackface,” she wrote in an email. “It’s not just part of a costume, it’s part of a deep legacy through which white Americans have denigrated black Americans.”

Northam is part of a club of white men who are debating the levels of appropriateness of blackface, making themselves arbiters of when blackface is and is not to be tolerated, and whether it means someone is racist or not. Despite Northam’s photo, his nickname as “Coonman,” and the admission of blackface, when CNN’s Jake Tapper asked Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe if Northam has been a racist, McAuliffe said, “I have zero indication of that.” And though Herring called for Northam’s resignation, he himself has not stepped down, and his party leadership continues to support him.

Collectively, what the initial actions, subsequent non-apologies, and overall lack of consequences convey is that white intention has precedence over the actual effects of racism, and that these men should get points for engaging in “well-intentioned racism” over the “ill-intentioned” racism fueled by overt hatred. Donald Trump embodies a garish, violent form of white supremacy, but white men who justify, overwrite, or turn away from black pain when it’s inconvenient to their narrative are participants in white supremacy all the same. If there’s anything remarkable about this moment, it’s not that these white men donned blackface, but how far they will go to avoid reckoning with what that says about them.

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