What do black shoe polish, a white bedsheet, and a standard curtain all have in common?
They’re all included in the controversial photo that’s been brought to light of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam. February started off with the resurfacing of this photo from Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook. In it is a male student wearing blackface, and another dressed as a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Initially, Northam had apologized for the photo.
However, Northam then backtracked, saying it couldn’t possibly have been him, because he vividly remembered a time where he had dressed in blackface as part of a Michael Jackson costume. Armed with this reasoning, Northam has ignored calls from his fellow Democrats to resign. Instead, he has decided to stay in office, saying during an interview that he believed this scandal happened for a reason.
However, the question begs to be asked: Why do blackface at all? Just as this scandal broke, the clothing brand Gucci came out with a sweater that many viewed as being a “high fashion” form of blackface. This week singer Katy Perry has been criticized for designing shoes that some view as depicting blackface. Whether it be for a Halloween costume, a themed party, or “just for fun” with friends, blackface seems to be an issue that won’t be going away anytime soon.
Some may wonder, with that in mind, why make it an issue? It’s just paint after all- or in Northam’s case, shoe polish. During a recent interview, Northam explained, “I’ve also learned why the use of blackface is so offensive. And yes, I knew it in the past, but reality has really set in.” If the governor of a whole state had trouble understanding the extremely racist implications of painting his face black, it can only be assumed that many others may be lost as well.
Blackface started as a form of theatrical makeup used by non-black performers to depict a caricature of black people. It became popular in the 1800s, when white male musicians would travel around, performing in minstrel shows for audiences throughout the country. Their performances were heavily saturated with offensive stereotypes, perpetrating the false idea that black people were buffoonish, stupid, and lazy, amongst other things. The innate racism of this practice can be seen by the fact that one of the most popular characters, Jim Crow, later served as the inspiration for the name of segregation laws in the South. There’s no question that racism is directly tied to blackface.
Although blackface is no longer considered suitable entertainment for the masses, it still has a strong presence. In late January, Michael Ertel, Florida’s Republican Secretary of State, had photos of himself surface, showing Ertel dressed in blackface mocking Hurricane Katrina survivors. A few days before his resignation, a video of two students from the University of Oklahoma began to circulate. In it, one of the students, a white woman, covered her face in black paint and uttered a racial slur while laughing. Following Northam’s scandal, the Attorney General of Virginia, Mark Herring, admitted to wearing blackface in the 1980s as a college student for a costume party. And there are stories upon stories just like these.
Every time news of another blackface incident comes out, there’s an immediate backlash. Yet, some people still don’t entirely get the point. Last October, Megyn Kelly, a former news anchor, said on air that she couldn’t understand why it wasn’t appropriate for white people to dress in blackface for Halloween.
A good rule of thumb in regards to all of this might be to ask yourself a simple question: Is it okay to use another race as a costume?
The answer to that question is, and should always be, no.
Most times, blackface is done with ill intent, by perpetuating harmful stereotypes (ie. dressing up as a “gangster” with a hint of black paint, and proceeding to speak “ghetto” for Halloween). However, even with the best intent, blackface is deeply harmful and hurtful, because its roots stem from discrimination and prejudice. When people decide to dress in blackface, no one benefits.