Friday, February 8, 2019


I've been thinking about the blackface scandal that has been roiling the government of Virginia -- the fact that the governor may or may not have appeared in a 1984 high school yearbook* photo in blackface. (First he said he did, then he said he didn't.)

To me, this scandal is a little like the "Me Too" movement. It makes sense to prosecute egregious offenses like Bill Cosby's drugging and sexually assaulting women, or, perhaps, to call out the governor for his blackface stunt (if he's the guy in the photo, he's next to someone dressed in a Ku Klux Klan robe).

But it's also problematic, when considering offenses that occurred 35 years ago -- or 50, in the case of a Virginia Senate leader who has also been ensnared in similar questions about blackface -- to hold people to the same standard that we would hold them to today.

This discussion has made me think about my own high school yearbook. I went to school in suburban Tampa, Florida, and in the entire school -- as I recall, about 800 or 900 students? -- there were maybe five black kids. I barely knew any of them. Obviously I can't speak for all my classmates, but growing up I had very little awareness of how race affected their outlook or how they might feel about certain allegedly humorous situations.

I'm pretty sure I knew blackface was wrong. (I knew that old-fashioned racial humor was offensive, because that's why Amos & Andy were no longer on television.) I don't remember anyone actually doing blackface, in the yearbook or on dress-up days. I wonder if anyone even tried. But then, two years after both I and the governor of Virginia graduated, a major Hollywood movie called "Soul Man" appeared, featuring a white actor in blackface. So the concept hadn't entirely left the culture. (I've never seen the movie, but I believe the main character ultimately sees that he was wrong to do blackface and thus emerges with some greater racial understanding. I think.)

I do remember our school's annual "Slave Day," in which a mock slave auction was held, and students could bid to "own" their classmates. The "owned" person would then have to do the owner's bidding all day.  I believe it was part of Homecoming week. That definitely makes my head spin.

And although I was never anyone's official "Slave Day" purchase, I had a running joke with a (white) classmate in which I would get on my knees and bow down to her in public places as if I were her slave. I would call her "Massah." We all just thought it was funny. No one gave any thought to the racial implications -- perhaps partly because we had no black friends to point them out to us.

I guess my point is that kids are kids, and they do stupid things -- especially if they're growing up in an environment where they have very little interaction with anyone who's different from them. This doesn't necessarily excuse the governor's blackface or our "slave auctions," but it's a reminder that standards really were different then.

It's good to have these discussions if only to see that we have made progress.

(Photo: A frozen orchid, discarded in a snowy yard-waste bag in Hampstead. Why someone would throw out what looks like a perfectly good orchid is a mystery to me.)

*It was actually his medical school yearbook. See comments.


Yorkshire Pudding said...

Wise words Steve. How far back in time should the light of justice shine? At some point you have to stop and say - that is now history, time to close the book.

Jennifer said...

I grew up in a tiny little nothing of a town in South Carolina in the poorest county in the state. My high school was well over half African American. I graduated in 1993. I won't sit here and tell you that there was no racism when I was growing up, because plenty of us white kids (myself included) came from families that were at the very least somewhat racist. But. I swear to you that there were many, many genuine friendships that crossed racial lines and we were all classmates first. It helped that most of us were poor, I suppose. Not a single one of us growing up in the 80s would have failed to see that putting on blackface would be deeply offensive to our friends. We would never use the "N" word. There were so many benefits of growing up with that kind of mixed racial makeup in our town. But now that I think about it, a handful of well to do kids went to the one private school in the county, and I'll bet things were different there. I'll bet plenty of white people that can afford that school send their kids there to avoid black people even to this day. I'll bet that the politicians in Virginia that thought blackface was funny back in their college days grew up wealthy and separated from African Americans, too. I imagine growing up with relative affluence limits contact between races and social classes and makes it easier to be callous towards issues that you've never seen anyone struggle with.

Vivian Swift said...

Israel in 1986,Purim party at the kibbutz. Everyone was in costume, and there was a stage and everyone did skits. I came as Tina Turner and I lip-synced Proud Mary. I did not wear blackface, and everyone thought I was hilarious (because Israelis are actually quite shy and to see some girl strutting around stage like Tina Turner was "maniac"). I did not even consider wearing blackface mainly because it was too much effort, and nobody thought my costume was less authentic.

And then three goy boys from Sweden, who were living at the kibbutz through the Scandinavian Winter, got on stage as the Supremes, and yes, they wore blackface. I thought it was funny that they were in drag and I thought they looked extra stupid with charcoal (I think) rubbed on their bodies, but I have to admit that I only had a small, very small qualm about their being in blackface. And I was able to brush aside even that little inner WTF because they were from a part of the world that had no history of blackface, and we were in a part of the world that was full of people who had been marginalized and brutalized by racial hatred. So, no harm no foul, right?

And now I'm sure that those kids in blackface, like the whole rest of the world, have since then become educated and sensitized to the meaning of white people doing blackface and regret having ever been so naive, young, and idiotic. Which is how I feel about a lot of stuff I did in the '80s but not, thankfully, about ever having done blackface.

When I worked for an English company in the 1990s, I had to tell my English co-workers to not use terms such as "Red Indian" and "Chinaman". I don't think they were racist -- they had simply never been taught to THINK about the power of words. Yeah, that's white priviledge for ya.

Linda Sue said...

Yes, I too am conflicted by Blackface, the "N" word, and the historical perspective of such plus other derogatory terms for women, Mexicans, Italians, and Asian- But the eighties were well aware so the date is important...We had one black kid in our school, We were performing "the Family Tree" in drama class. needed a black maid...I was the blondest person in the entire school, see through blond - barely there blond, and was chosen to play the maid- so , yes, blackface, and a wig hat, as well as what we though was black dialect. If I were to run for public office pretty sure this would come up.

Ms. Moon said...

I don't know why but I have always been very, very sensitive to race issues. Well, I think I do know why but it's a longer story than I want to tell. Lots of factors, one of them being that I've always had the blessing and curse of be able to see things from the eyes of others.
One of the main problems with this whole governor thing is that he lied about it. If he'd just stuck with an apology and talked about how far he and society have come it might have passed over but the lie, as lies do, has probably muddied the waters too much for their to be any clean resolution.
But what do I know?

The Bug said...

It is a conundrum. Vivian is right about white privilege - growing up in a certain environment might keep a person from understanding why blackface wasn't the best choice. On the other hand, the KKK outfit is a whole other thing altogether - and wearing blackface while standing next to someone in that costume? THAT is not innocent or unaware, in my opinion. That's making a statement.

Fresca said...

Thought-provoking post, Steve! Thanks for writing about a difficult subject.

Social standards change, but the fundamentals are the same--
humiliation, force, mockery, cruelty, unfairness.
Throughout time there has been some version of the Golden Rule pointing out,
If you wouldn't like it, don't do it to others.

I believe white kids who didn't know about racism meant no harm, but if, as ADULTS, they can't point out that their actions were a regrettable part of larger cultural norms that DID intend and do harm, they are probably not suited for political office.

And we can't close the book because it's not done being written.
Anyone interested can check out the fascinating and disturbing Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris University.
The museum's "…and it doesn't stop" page documents the *current* production and sales of racist objects--such as a Trayvon Martin hoodie with a target on it and Adidas Shackle Shoes (?!?).

robin andrea said...

I think that black-face photo of Northam is from his medical school yearbook. He was long out of high school when that was taken. Still it's hard to escape the racist aspect of it at any age. I do think some of that makeup is done with utter innocence, and only the person doing it knows what's in their hearts. We can only guess.

Sharon said...

I'm glad you said something about this because it's been bothering me too. Frankly, I'm shocked that the school allowed that photo to be included in the yearbook. One thing is for certain, the people of Virginia has some heavy thinking to do.

ellen abbott said...

the picture of the Virginia governor in black face (actual black color) next to the guy in the KKK hood is definitely offensive and speaks volumes I think (as does his response - no mea culpa or heartfelt apology and expression of personal growth since then). but I have mixed feelings about the lt. gov./senator ? whose Halloween costume was his favorite musician (a black rapper) and who used brown makeup to darken his skin. is that offensive? so I think would I find it offensive if it was a black person whitening his/her skin with makeup as part of a Halloween costume of a favorite musician who was white? I don't think I would. but I can't imagine a black person doing 'whiteface', have I ever seen that or heard of it? and again, there is the difference between whites and blacks as whites have always had the upper hand. and like you said Steve, are we never to allow for growth, for being young and dumb or overcoming lessons learned at home? I guess it depends on intent and how a person reacts when confronted by an act of (relative) youth, if it was a one time thing or part of a pattern of behavior. do I think that a single racist act committed 30 +/- years ago that is now a shameful memory to the person should taint them forever? and how much of my answer to that question is based on the fact that I am of the same color as the person being examined? I don't know. it's a slippery slope.

37paddington said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
37paddington said...

Then again, we read stories all the time of similar sorts of things happening in schools today. I guess the difference is, when we read those stories, it's because there's been an uproar over it. I think it's the lack of any recognition of how inhumane slave auctions truly were that pummels me. I wonder if we will every really truly bridge the great divide in how we understand this history.

Thanks for creating a space for this hard conversation. The post and comments are thoughtful and thought-provoking.

Catalyst said...

Well said, Steve.

Unknown said...

I must comment that when I was in my teens, (I am 70 now) it was common place for the nuns to have a play in which all the students participating wore black face. I recall specifically because the black stuff would get in my eyes when they put it on. I don't remember what they called those plays but it was an annual event. Hootenanny?
No only did no one think of the racial implications, in the small desert town where I grew up there were only 2 black families out of about 10,000 people. We didn't know any black people except for those two families. Everyone knew who they were, one of the gentleman was the mail man and he used to whistle as he walked. We all loved him, he disrupted class with his beautiful song in the spring when it was warm and the old school house windows were open. The other black man worked with my father. They were just people like the rest of us. To be honest, I don't think those nuns had a clue, or they were racists and we simply didn't recognize that. That was something totally foreign to us.

Colette said...

I think he should resign because he handled it so badly that he won't have sufficient credibility going forward. However, it is all so complicated, isn't it? At what point do we forgive people? What must they do to earn forgiveness? How does one atone for the wrongs they do?

jenny_o said...

For me, The Bug's comment is the most compelling answer to the issue of whether wearing blackface as a young naive person can be forgiven. To submit a photo to the yearbook that contained a KKK outfit - there's no question that even a young person should know how wrong that is, and if their intent is good, should never have posed for the photo nor flaunted it.

I understand your point about forgiveness of naive mistakes, but this doesn't look or smell like a naive mistake to me.

Red said...

I was completely isolated from any other race. We imitated what we saw. It hit me when I started working with aboriginals and I was called a white man.

Steve Reed said...

YP: Exactly.

Jennifer: I think you definitely benefited from the interaction you gained at school. Kids can learn so much by just being around different people. An education that deliberately prevents that isn't really much of an education! I went to a public school too, but our racial imbalance was just demographics -- there were very few black residents in the area where we lived. (I think blacks were reluctant to settle there because it was overwhelmingly white, rural and "rednecky.") Oh, and I DID know never to use the N word. I definitely knew that was forbidden and deeply offensive.

Vivian: I think "naive, young and idiotic" are the key words in your comment. We were ALL all of those things at one point. I STILL hear British people say "Red Indian"!

Linda Sue: But that's my point -- SHOULD it come up? Given the time and the circumstance? I mean, there's nothing wrong with discussing it, but I think we have to be careful about penalizing people for things that happened at such a different time. I can see how the governor's situation is a bit more severe because, as was discussed in the comments, he was in college at the time and the picture included someone in a KKK robe. It's more pointed that mere blackface.

Ms Moon: Yeah, I think that's true. He ought to come clean about what the picture is, where it was taken and who's in it. Explain it and let the chips fall where they may. As much as I want to be cautious about holding people responsible for youthful indiscretions, it IS hard for me to fathom why someone would want that picture on their yearbook page.

Bug: The KKK outfit definitely complicates things. It adds a menacing element, doesn't it? I can still see how a couple of people at a college party might have gone in those outfits, for humorous shock effect, without really thinking about the meaning of what they were saying. But more explanation is needed.

Fresca: That's a very good way to put it -- as ADULTS they need to be able to address their past transgressions. Did you see that Gucci just got in trouble for selling a black turtleneck sweater with racist imagery?

Robin: THANK YOU for pointing that out. I had completely missed the fact that this was a medical school yearbook, and that makes a big difference. (I've added a note to that effect to the post.) He wasn't an 18-year-old high school senior, he was presumably in his mid-20s by then. And arguably by that time he'd been out in the world around lots of different people and should have known better. That DOES put it in a different light.

Sharon: I'm surprised too! And why, of all the photos to sum up his college career, would he choose THAT one?

Steve Reed said...

Ellen: Yeah, the idea of "whiteface," if it exists at all, is just not as offensive because, as you said, whites have the upper hand anyway. I do think forgiveness for youthful indiscretions is necessary, but like you, I'm aware that my own race probably taints my perspective.

37P: I'm really sorry you removed your initial "Holy crap!" comment. I think people SHOULD have that reaction to our "slave auctions." I definitely have that reaction now! I don't remember them having any obvious racial overtone -- no one DRESSED as a slave or did blackface or anything -- but the very idea of a slave auction is appalling. I certainly hope schools aren't doing that kind of thing now, even in a way that gets publicly chastised.

Catalyst: Thanks!

Unknown: I suspect, as you said, the nuns just didn't have a clue. I mean, they may have been racist too, in a kind of casual way, but I doubt they'd have been out waving KKK flags. They were probably clueless just as I was clueless when I was bowing to my friend and calling her "Massah."

Colette: I really believe, in general, we need to be a more forgiving society. Especially for things that happened long ago. Obviously there are limits and they have to do with the degree of any given offense. And I agree with you that the governor has handled this badly and that's exacerbated the problem.

Jenny-O: Yeah, I see that point. It IS hard to understand why, given all the pictures he could have included on his yearbook page, he'd include THAT one.

Red: It's very hard, when you're only around white people, to understand how people of other races think and feel.