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Analysis

It falls to African Americans (again) to explain why blackface is so offensive

It's been a really rocky start to Black History Month.

Protestors rally against Virginia Governor Ralph Northam outside of the governors mansion in downtown Richmond, Virginia on February 4, 2019. CREDIT: LOGAN CYRUS/AFP/Getty Images
Protestors rally against Virginia Governor Ralph Northam outside of the governors mansion in downtown Richmond, Virginia on February 4, 2019. CREDIT: LOGAN CYRUS/AFP/Getty Images

Virginia State Attorney General Mark Herring (D) admitted this week that when he was 19 years old he took pictures in blackface. He’s not the first public official to admit to appearing in blackface, nor is his a singular case.

In fact, the event that preceded Herring’s admission occurred just last week, when the existence of a racist photograph on Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s (D) medical school yearbook page came to light.

That photo depicted a man in blackface, standing alongside another person draped in a Ku Klux Klan costume. The entire Democratic establishment in Virginia, as well as national leaders in the party including various 2020 presidential contenders, have called on Northam to resign.

Elsewhere in the state, Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment (R) on Thursday was revealed to have been the managing editor decades ago when an issue of the Virginia Military Institute’s yearbook was published containing a number of racist slurs and photos, including pictures of people in blackface.

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It was only last month, meanwhile, that Florida Secretary of State Michael Ertel (R) tendered his resignation, after photos surfaced of him wearing blackface at a party a decade and a half ago. 

And even suggesting the use of blackface was enough to get Megyn Kelly fired by NBC last year, when the former Fox News anchor mused on live television whether blackening one’s face for Halloween was harmful or disrespectful to anybody.

Northam continues to bunker down in the governor’s mansion, in the apparent hopes that the controversy might blow over. Meanwhile, the Washington Post published an editorial Thursday demanding his resignation.

Condemnation of all of these incidents was swift and resounding. But as so often happens in such cases, it fell to African Americans —  politicians, scholars, and public officials — to teach the rest of the country something that should not require an explanation: It is never, ever okay to wear blackface.

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Princeton professor Eddie Glaude, a commentator on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, theorized this week that the sort of person who has no qualms about wearing blackface in most cases have had limited dealings with African Americans.

“For Northam to think that dressing in black face was okay, for Megyn Kelly to think it was okay, for Michael Ertel … It reveals that there are no black people in their intimate lives — that we’re mysteries to each other,” he said.

“The fact that we don’t live and exist with each other in social spaces leads you to believe that you can wear this stuff on your face,” said Glaude.

“Racism is in the very fabric of this country and what it reveals is how deeply and profoundly … segregated this society is,” he continued. “Governor Northam represents something that is profoundly wrong with us — with America.”

For some, the use of blackface appears to be about reinforcing their inclusion in fraternities that celebrate white privilege and that bolster a misplaced sense of superiority, even as societal changes and inroads in civil rights erode that illusion on a daily basis.

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In his statement Wednesday, Herring divulged that he had painted his face black in grotesque mimicking of black Americans when he was a young adult.

He wrote that he and a group of his college buddies fell victim to “ignorance and glib attitudes,” adding that because he and his friends “did not have an appreciation for the experiences and perspectives of others – we dressed up and put on wigs and brown makeup.”

In the blackface incident that cost him his job, Ertel donned a head wrap, hoop earrings, and a push up bra under his tee shirt. “There’s nothing I can say,” the formal Florida official told reporters after his resignation.

Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, broke down for television viewers the history of terrorism by the Klan, and the appalling and disjointed image of the hood and robe being worn so casually by the person photographed in Northam’s yearbook.

“People need to understand why blackface is so offensive — and of course, the Ku Klux Klan being a terrorist organization undisputed — but black face was a method in the late 1800s and early 1900s where white actors mocked stereotypic images of African-Americans,” Morial said.

“It was disparaging to do it. It was meant to bring out laughter. It portrayed African-Americans as lazy, shiftless, hypersexual,” he said. “We need to understand that this is a teaching moment and this is not a Halloween costume that black face is deeply offensive for some very historical reasons.”

Asked by CNN host Jake Tapper to “blacksplain” the emotional impact of blackface and Klan imagery, commentator Bakari Sellers delivered an impassioned speech on the history of black oppression.

“First, we have to say that Democrats and Republicans alike have problems with race in this country. We can say that Republicans have more of an issue. That doesn’t matter. Racism is in the fabric of the United States of America,” said Sellers, a former politician was a member of South Carolina’s state legislature from 2006 to 2014.

“We all know that the KKK just brutalized, raped, lynched, pillaged many African-Americans not just throughout the South but throughout the country,” he said.

Sellers added that smearing on blackface is no less insidious an act. “I think that many times, white people do not understand what blackface means,” he said.

“When you have your son, and he’s going out in blackface for a costume, or your son goes to prep school or elite day schools and they dress up in blackface — basically what it means you’re calling me nigger,” Sellers continued.

“The reason I say that is, blackface goes back to the mid-19th century when people were dressing up showing African Americans to be lazy, to be ignorant, hypersexual and to be all-out disrespectful to our culture,” he said.

“So when I see images like this, it harkens on the fact we have a serious issue with race in this country … We need to set a standard that racism will not be tolerated in our party, in our political discourse,” he said. 

Sellers ended his remarks talking about the burdens of systemic racism that touches of the lives or all African Americans every day, even when they are not confronted with degrading imagery meant to mock and demoralize.

“The fact you have doctors who dress up in blackface, who wear KKK garb … That goes to question: You have these doctors. How do we think they are caring for African-Americans in their care when they do not even look as African-Americans and give them the benefit of their humanity?” he wondered aloud.

“This is why we have systemic racism our country. This is why racism is pervasive in our systems… This is a much larger issue than just Gov. Northam.”