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

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Blackface isn’t just about the racism in America’s past. It’s also about the racism in America’s present.

A bigger conversation about blackface’s history and its continued use is finally beginning to unfold.

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In the past few years, most high-profile blackface incidents have largely been confined to college campuses, ill-advised Halloween costumes, and bizarre television sketches. But over the past week in Virginia, several officials have come under increasing scrutiny for blackface scandals.

It’s sparked a full-on crisis over the state’s leadership — and fueled a larger debate over a racist practice that has long existed and continues to occur.

Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, came under fire in early February after a conservative outlet reported that a photo of two men, one in blackface, the other wearing a Ku Klux Klan outfit, was prominently featured on Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook page. Northam initially apologized and said that he was one of the people in the photo, only to reverse course and deny any involvement a day later. He then bizarrely acknowledged another incident in 1984 where he wore blackface, putting shoe polish on his face to portray Michael Jackson in a dance contest.

On Friday, Northam announced that he will not resign, and Buzzfeed reported that the governor is considering shifting his legislative agenda to focus on race and equity in order to ride out the scandal and attempt to rebuild lost trust among Virginians. In a new interview with CBS This Morning, Northam said that the state “needs someone that can heal.”

“There’s no better person to do that than a doctor,” he added.

Governor Ralph Northam addresses the media at the Governor’s Mansion in Richmond, Virgina, on February 2, 2019.
Julia Rendleman for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Unfortunately, Northam was just the beginning of controversies over blackface in the state.

As calls for Northam’s resignation mounted last week, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring (who is third in line for the governorship) admitted that he also wore blackface, explaining that he dressed as rap icon Kurtis Blow for a University of Virginia party in 1980. This second revelation dealt a heavy blow to Virginia Democrats, who are also grappling with sexual assault allegations against the state’s lieutenant governor.

Over the past few days, more revelations about other politicians have begun to trickle out. Tommy Norment, Virginia’s Senate majority leader, was the managing editor of a 1968 yearbook that included pictures of students in blackface and mentions of racial slurs, and showed people with Confederate flags. The first Republican to be caught up in the widening scandal, Norment argues that recent complaints over the yearbook are the result of politics.

“I am not surprised that those wanting to engulf Republican leaders in the current situations involving the governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general would highlight the yearbook from my graduation a half century ago,” he said in a Thursday statement.

This spate of recent scandals has called renewed attention to blackface, a deeply racist practice that’s been used over decades to dehumanize black people. In Virginia, Northam and Herring have argued that their actions reflect a youthful stupidity, and some observers say they should not be punished for what they did decades ago, saying that it was a different time in American culture when men painted their skin to imitate racist caricatures or prominent African Americans.

Protesters rally against Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam outside of the governor’s mansion in downtown Richmond on February 4, 2019.
Logan Cyrus/AFP/Getty Images

But framing controversies over blackface simply as a reaction to a form of older, long-gone racism is a mistake. As multiple examples from the past few years indicate, it has never really gone away. The outrage over what is happening in Virginia and the controversies that continue to crop up around blackface portrayals suggest that a bigger conversation about blackface’s history and impact is finally beginning to unfold. And this conversation shouldn’t just focus on past incidents; it must also examine exactly why blackface keeps happening now.

Blackface has been controversial for decades. That hasn’t stopped it from happening.

Blackface, which most often occurs when a white person covers themselves in dark makeup or black paint to imitate a black person, has been around for close to two centuries. Blackface was certainly not confined to just the South, and its lengthy history and decades-long prominence in popular entertainment reflects just how deeply the practice is interwoven into American culture and history.

As Jenée Desmond-Harris explained for Vox in 2014, blackface dates back to minstrel shows in the mid to late 19th century. White actors (who used items like burnt cork, greasepaint, and shoe polish to darken their skin) performed exaggerated and highly racist caricatures of black people, presenting white audiences with a dehumanized image of African Americans, who at the time were disenfranchised and denied basic rights under racial caste systems like Jim Crow laws (in fact, the name “Jim Crow” came from a minstrel character). Black actors also performed in blackface, often because it was the only way white audiences were willing to see black performers.

These portrayals were part of a system that painted African Americans as deviant and therefore deserving of subpar treatment. The same attitudes that rationalized blackface minstrelsy rationalized poll taxes, lynchings, and segregation — issues that have shaped black life in America to this day.

Still, blackface was quite common, appearing not just on stages and TV and radio programs like Amos ’n’ Andy (where white radio actors portrayed black characters) but also at public events, and on predominantly white college campuses across the country. Judy Garland did blackface. So did Shirley Temple. For seven decades at the University of Vermont, students participated in an annual “Kake Walk” where fraternities—in a contest that mimicked dances performed by enslaved people before the Civil War—wore blackface and Afro wigs as they danced for prizes. The school finally ended the practice in 1969.

“Blackface is as American as the ruling class,” Princeton historian Rhae Lynn Barnes recently wrote at the Washington Post. “Throughout the 20th century, all-male fraternal orders, schools, federal agencies and the U.S. military collectively institutionalized the practice.” In Virginia, blackface minstrel shows continued to receive support well into the 1970s, Northam’s and Herring’s teenage years.

And in recent days, a number of photos posted to social media show how blackface in school yearbooks wasn’t limited to Northam’s or Norment’s Virginia alma maters:

Of course, that blackface was so common does not negate the fact that it was racist and offensive, even if American culture as a whole did not acknowledge it as such. Frederick Douglass spoke out against blackface, arguing in 1848 that minstrel performers “have stolen from us a complexion denied to them by nature, in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow-citizens.” Barnes notes that black women led protests and legal actions against the use of blackface in schools during the civil rights movement. Black students who attended medical school with Northam say they would have been offended to find out their classmates dressed in blackface.

“The usage of blackface was deeply and inherently racist,” Vox’s Jane Coaston notes. “It played on stereotypes both old and new of black people, and, more perniciously, showed a reticence to engage with actual, real-life black people, and a preference to engage with white people dressed as black people instead.”

While blackface has become taboo and its practitioners have faced heightened scrutiny in recent decades, especially after the passage of the Civil Rights Act helped further the decline of blackface’s prominence in popular culture in the 1960s and ’70s, that hasn’t ended the practice — or its influence on American culture — in its entirety. Blackface still appears in movies and on television, whether on sitcoms, in sketch comedy, or at the Oscars. And every year, new controversies involving blackface, be they celebrity Halloween costumes, photos from college parties, or videos recorded on Snapchat, still occur.

Here’s just one example: In late January, before the controversy in Virginia, Florida Secretary of State Mike Ertel resigned from office after a news outlet published a 2005 photo from a Halloween party that showed the state official posed in blackface as a survivor of Hurricane Katrina.

Many have responded to these incidents with the argument that these acts occurred in the past, implying or openly stating that the men in question have grown and overcome their youthful actions. It’s a claim that gets applied even when the people in question weren’t actually all that young. Ertel, for example, was in his 30s when the 2005 picture was taken.

Other incidents further undermine the claim that blackface is just a relic of a past, more racist America.

A few days before Ertel’s January resignation, two students at the University of Oklahoma made national headlines after a video circulated showing one of the students, a white woman, covering her face in black paint and uttering a racial slur while laughing at the camera. Shortly after that incident, a man reportedly wandered around the University of Oklahoma in blackface, drawing outraged responses from the university’s students of color.

Last April, a fraternity at California Polytechnic State University was suspended after the group partied while dressed as gang members — and one member of the group decided to go in blackface. In 2016, students at Pennsylvania’s Albright College were suspended after a video of a white student in blackface criticizing the Black Lives Matter movement spread online.

The Atlantic’s Adam Harris notes that blackface on college campuses saw a resurgence in the early 2000s. Around that time in 2002, more than 20 years after Herring went to that 1980 University of Virginia party in blackface, two fraternities at the school were suspended after students did it again, when two guests attended a Halloween party dressed as Venus and Serena Williams (a third man darkened his skin for an Uncle Sam costume). Supporters of the students argued that the costumes were nothing but harmless fun.

A list of every blackface incident in the past few years would be too long to compile here, but it belies the point that these are not isolated incidents — and they are in no way relegated to the past.

Blackface is built on a deeply racist history — one that many people dismiss

At this point, debates about the appropriateness of blackface are practically an annual tradition, with defenders arguing that the practice is not offensive. This argument assumes that intent and impact are the same thing, and ignores the fact that blackface is deeply rooted in a history of casting African Americans as inferior.

In recent years, there’s been an attempt — perhaps most recently in the Today show segment that got then-host Megyn Kelly fired last year — to position the historical, offensive use of blackface or costumes depicting stereotypes of other ethnicities as distinct from simply dressing up as celebrities. But this ignores that the costumes still serve as a vehicle for racial dress-up, and that the stereotypes and anti-black attitudes that blackface relied on in the past are still present today. In both cases, blackness, however inappropriately defined by its performers, is used as a decoration and reduced to a costume, something that is painted on and then taken off after the fun is over. And it’s worth noting that the fun is often isolated in private, predominantly white spaces.

In theory, the history and clearly visual nature of blackface should make it more of a taboo than it is. Instead, polling shows that despite blackface’s clearly racist origins, there are plenty of people who don’t see a problem with it.

A recent poll from the Washington Post found that just 58 percent of Americans believe blackface is wrong. Breaking down those numbers by race, 73 percent of black Americans disapprove of blackface, while 57 percent of whites said the same. The biggest gaps came on political lines, with 81 percent of Democrats disapproving of blackface compared to 50 percent of independents and 44 percent of Republicans.

These are large gaps, and they fit into a larger discussion about racism and intent. Racist actions in America are so often defined as highly visible acts committed maliciously by obviously “bad” individuals. Those who don’t see blackface as a problem debate that the act doesn’t fall into this category because people in blackface don’t mean to be offensive, despite the practice long being used to dehumanize black Americans and position them as inferior to whites.

It’s a framing that not only makes it practically impossible to have frank discussions of the racism intricately tied to blackface, it also sidesteps the concerns of black people who are angered over its use.

The Virginia controversy has called new attention to the ways this debate remains unsettled. But even among critics of the Virginia politicians, there’s been an argument that while blackface is troubling and clearly racist, national controversies over it can obscure far more impactful issues, particularly those rooted in less obvious forms of systemic racism. As Jamelle Bouie wrote in the New York Times recently, “it treats expressions of racist contempt or mockery as the most egregious forms of racism, when that distinction should belong to the promotion of racist policies and ideas.”

There’s a truth to this, and scholars like White Fragility author Robin DiAngelo note that white Americans in particular have long relied on exaggerated definitions of racism that focus on things that can be clearly seen and heard, over entrenched systemic issues that affect the daily lives of people of color. But it’s also true that blackface is rooted in a deeply racist history, one that should not be used for the enjoyment of college students, partygoers, or television audiences. That public opinion can’t fully agree on that points to a deeper problem with how even these exaggerated acts — the stuff that is so often presented as “clearly racist” — can be quickly explained away and defined out of existence.

This presents a challenge when it comes to addressing racism in general, and particularly the systemic racism — seen in issues like mass incarceration, voter suppression, and wealth inequities — that has received increased attention in recent years. After all, if even things like blackface can be dismissed as not racist or not racist enough to warrant consequences or condemnation, it makes more subtle forms of racism and discrimination that much harder to address. It highlights one of the biggest problems with blackface’s continued persistence, especially as it’s raised in controversies on college campuses and, more recently, in state governments.

It is true that on its own, eradicating blackface will not end racism in America. Still, even if its practitioners disagree, blackface is part of a long history of the dehumanization of black Americans, serving as a highly visible representation of a much deeper injustice. That even this practice has been so difficult to curtail points to just how deeply racism is embedded in American culture, and how much work will need to be done to address it.


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