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Randi Kreiss

Where’s the harm in a blackface costume?


What is wrong with these people?”

That was my thought when I saw the clip of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam offering a tortured explanation of why he appeared in his medical school yearbook in blackface. For those who haven’t been tuned in, somebody posted the photo of what we were told was the partying future governor, alongside someone wearing a KKK hood.

Funny as a lynching, I thought.

First the governor said he was sorry. Then he said the guy in the photo wasn’t him. Then he said he wouldn’t resign, because that would be the “easy way out.”

Then the attorney general of Virginia said that he, too, wore blackface at a party when he was an undergraduate. Really? Was that the go-to costume of the day? Apparently none of the partygoers knew that white performers wore blackface in the 19th century to mock and ridicule former slaves and other black people. Its roots are racist.

I talked about the Virginia debacle with people I know, and was surprised by the variety of responses. I was surprised there was a variety. I was sure my like-minded liberal friends and my reasonable right-wingish friends would see blackface for what it is: a thoughtless slur.

There was no question in my mind, from the moment the photo was exposed, that Northam needed to apologize and leave office. And he needed to take his A.G. with him. How, I thought, did two highly educated men in the 21st century become prominent American leaders when their personal histories reveal such crude bias?

One friend of mine said, “Well, the governor was in school at the time.” But the school was medical school, and he was 25 years old, and he was dealing with a community of patients that presumably included African-Americans. He was entrusted with their lives. While he was learning the tenets of the Hippocratic oath, he thought it was OK to wear blackface to a party and stand with someone in a Klan costume. He can’t parse his words skillfully enough to explain that lapse.

People I know and respect said the governor was wrong but shouldn’t have to step down. They argue that he has conducted himself in the years since the incident reasonably and professionally. It was a forgivable mistake, they say. He has evolved. As for the attorney general wearing blackface to a party, it was done all the time in certain circles, they argue. As for posing with the KKK dude while wearing blackface, well, no one has tried to explain that particular homage to bigotry.

A friend said her teenage daughter wore blackface to a Halloween party some years ago as a jokey kind of costume. The young woman, she added, doesn’t have a racist bone in her body. But she doesn’t get to make that call. Were there black kids at that party? I’m guessing not. Because I expect they might have been offended.

To bring it home to myself, I wondered how I would feel if I went to a costume party and saw someone dressed in the traditional garments worn by various Jewish groups: black hats, beards, prayer shawls or, if we’re going to insult Jewish women, wigs. We aren’t talking political correctness here; we’re discussing religious, racial and cultural respect.

It doesn’t matter if a costume is meant to be a joke, or if the wearer of the outfit is a “decent person.” Good intentions don’t take the sting out of a racist remark or action.

Thinking of wearing a headdress and feathers to your next party? Or if you’re a guy, what about a set of big foam breasts and a blond wig? Maybe ride into the party in a wheelchair, for the laughs.

Forget that Ralph Northam and his attorney general hold political office. They may stay or go; it won’t make much difference. But what would make a difference is for the governor to offer an authentic apology and simultaneously launch a comprehensive education program to make all Americans more aware of religious, racial and cultural sensitivities.

The people who get to decide whether a costume or speech is offensive are the very people targeted by that behavior. You can’t say someone shouldn’t be insulted by blackface. If anyone is offended, it’s wrong.

Copyright 2019 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at randik3@aol.com.