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When White People Say, ‘That’s Bad!’ It Matters

By Abe Haile

A page from the 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook photographed by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Feb. 1, 2019. The page has four photos: on the top left, a portrait of Ralph in a suit and time; in the middle, a candid photo of Northam standing outside, trees in the background; bottom left is Northam seated on the ground beside a convertible; and on the right side is a candid photo of two people, the one on the left in blackface, the one on the right in a klansman's robe and hood. Below that photo states, "Alma Mater: Virginia Military Institute; Interest: Pediatrics; Quote: There are more old drunks than old doctors in this world so I think I'll have another beer."
A page from the 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook photographed by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Feb. 1, 2019. The page has four photos: on the top left, a portrait of Ralph in a suit and time; in the middle, a candid photo of Northam standing outside, trees in the background; bottom left is Northam seated on the ground beside a convertible; and on the right side is a candid photo of two people, the one on the left in blackface, the one on the right in a klansman’s robe and hood. Below that photo states, “Alma Mater: Virginia Military Institute; Interest: Pediatrics; Quote: There are more old drunks than old doctors in this world so I think I’ll have another beer.”

I’m willing to bet you and everyone you know had never heard of Virginian Governor Ralph Northam before this month. A racist photo from Northam’s medical yearbook surfaced depicting two individuals—one dressed in minstrel blackface and the other in full Klansman garb.

Keep in mind this year book page in question was Northam’s personal page with four pictures he handpicked and submitted to the yearbook committee.

Northam initially apologized for taking part in this 1984 racist buffoonery, then changed his story less than 24-hours later, claiming he was neither of the gentlemen in the photo. Unsolicited, he did however admit to dressing up in blackface for an unrelated Michael Jackson costume just a few months after the photo in question.

Let’s give Wreck-It Ralph the benefit of the doubt and assume he wasn’t either of the distinguished racist doctors in that ‘good ole boys’ photo. Then, let’s ask him why he—as a 25-year-old medical student—felt this picture would stand the test of time any better than a Harlem Shake tattoo.

I’m more curious about this nuance than any other aspect of the story. In fact, as an American black man, I don’t find this story all that shocking.

Blackface worn by white performers in America is synonymous with Jim Crow laws intended to keep African-Americans segregated to a lower quality of life. Blackface was one of the original racist fear-mongering tactics used in this country to spread hateful stereotypes about black citizens.

It’s not that I don’t care that Ralph Northam wore blackface. I just don’t find it all that alarming that a 25-year-old man who grew up in the capital state of the confederacy might have been a racist college kid. Call it desensitization if you please, but black people have been putting up with mainstream blackface right into this decade.

Unlike Ralph Northam, I am willing to bet you and your closest people have heard of both Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon. Within the last 20 years, both of these highly successful late-night talk show hosts have dressed up in blackface on their respective prior television gigs. Kimmel on multiple occasions went blackface as both Oprah Winfrey and Karl Malone (retired NBA Hall of Famer) on The Man Show. And Fallon donned dark brown makeup to impersonate comedian Chris Rock during a Saturday Night Live sketch.

Fox News was quick to pounce on the Jimmy’s for being the only two late night hosts to conveniently omit the Democratic Ralph Northam’s story from their monologue all week.

But the late-night hosts aren’t the only famous white people who have thrown blackface caution to the wind in recent years. In 2012, Billy Crystal wore blackface to impersonate Sammy Davis Jr. during the Academy Awards. Robert Downy Jr. found time to change out of his Iron Man suit in May 2008 and into blackface for Tropic Thunder (August 2008). The Ben Stiller-directed movie grossed $188 million worldwide and sat at #1 in the box office for four consecutive weeks.

So, excuse me for finding it odd that white politicians have for some reason chosen now to start “caring” about this extremely racist display. It just seems like this learning opportunity is being co-opted for ulterior motives.

4:39 PM – Feb 2, 2019: President Trump tweets Ralph Northam’s behavior is “Unforgivable!”

4:59 PM – Feb 9, 2019: President Trump tweets on Elizabeth Warren entering the presidential race: “…Pocahontas, joined the race for President…See you on the campaign TRAIL, Liz!” Trail of course referring to the Trail of Tears in which tens of thousands of Native Americans died in blatant genocide as the result of the 1830 Indian Removal Act.

6:53 AM – Feb 10, 2019: President Trump tweets: “African Americans are very angry at the double standard on full display in Virginia!”

I appreciate the President speaking on behalf of African Americans. And I’d like to add my own thoughts. Northam said in a press conference that he learned how hurtful his Michael Jackson blackface was shortly after wearing the costume thanks to a conversation he had with a person of color. The Governor says he learned from this discussion how racist blackface is and that he apologized to the man and swore to never do it again.

Look at Northam’s track record and determine for yourself if in fact he genuinely learned anything from this said transformational conversation with a person of color: He’s against Confederate statues in public, he’s advocated for Virginia’s poor by working to expand Medicaid, and he has worked to remove policies prohibiting felons from voting (credit to Dahleen Glanton of the Chicago Tribune, Feb. 4, 2019).

So, what’s it going to be America? Are we going to retroactively punish every white person who has ever donned blackface now that our racist President has deemed the act “unforgivable”?

Given that a recent poll found that 39% of white American adults say the use of blackface as part of a Halloween costume can be acceptable, I’m not sure a zero-tolerance punishment approach is going to serve us in the long-run.

Instead, I wonder how many white Americans who have worn blackface are humble and brave enough to engage in a difficult blackface conversation with a black person where they might hear how hurtful their behaviors were to a fellow American. What if Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon each held an intentional listening session with a black American on live television?

It’s that kind of accountability that can really produce results.

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