In the few days since we discovered that VA Governor Ralph Northam wore black face in a 1984 medical school year book photo while standing next to a costumed KKK member, VA Attorney General Mark Herring admits to wearing black face in college. Herring apologized.
As an African American, I know this racist problem is something that is not indicative of just Virginia politicians, Democrats or Republicans. It is indicative of white America. While many white Americans may not have worn black face, many still do not understand the pain it causes for many African Americans. And the racial backlash against African Americans continues today, without one having to wear black face.
The fact that whites believe it is appropriate to post photos wearing black face whether in college, medical school or elsewhere shows the race divide in America. These photos cut to the core of emotional pain for many African Americans. While for many white Americans, wearing black face is hilarity at the expense of Blacks.
Megan Kelly was fired from the Today show because she commented that she saw nothing wrong with wearing black face. Obviously, she was not alone in her thinking. VA Governor Ralph Northam faces resignation calls by nearly every politician except former Congressman Jim Web (D.VA).
Just as sexual harassment was once common place in the work place and elsewhere, it was never acceptable to women. Likewise, wearing black face may have been acceptable in certain white circles, it was never acceptable to African Americans. Just as women are not being too sensitive about sexual assaults, blacks are not being too sensitive about racism in America.
White actors and musicians during the time of slavery and up to an including into the 1900’s would cover their faces in black dye and create stereotypical and racist portrayals of slaves and African Americans. The representations would show blacks as being inferior to whites, being sub- intelligent with a low IQ and being less than human, childlike and acting like buffoons. The white Black faced actors and musicians played parts and sang in ways to dehumanize and ridicule African Americans, making them the butt of jokes for white audiences. These portrayals were funny to whites but degrading to African Americans.
For those who miss the racial tone of black face, consider the fact that many African Americans dress up in costume on occasion disguised as white persons. Most Blacks do not feel the need to smear white shoe polish on their faces in caricature. There is an undeniable racist element to black face.
There is nothing illegal about the use of Black face by white Americans. However, to many African Americans, it amounts to a betrayal by those politicians who they believed to be an ally on race issues. On a grading scale, the black face by Herring does not rise to the level of Ralph Northam’s photo complete with KKK member. However, we don’t need to give grades for racially insensitive and racist photographs. What we need are discussions.
Both Herring and Northam’s depictures of black face show the real need for discussions on race in America and white privileged thinking. Former Attorney General Eric Holder, speaking during Black History month in 2009, said that we are a “nation of cowards” on issues involving race. We never see the need to discuss race until the next event occurs. And then we punt on it until the next event. I suspect the same will be true of these incidences.
Maybe it’s time for all politicians who used Black face, laughed while someone else used black face or ever thought about using black face step forward. And maybe, it’s time to begin the race discussion in earnest. Like talking to your child about sex, it’s a very difficult topic to discuss. The race discussion is a necessary albeit a difficult and painful one.
Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is an attorney and former prosecutor. She appears regularly in the media on topics of law and politics intersecting at race and gender.