From left, Virginia governor Ralph Northam and the blackface photo. Photo courtesy of CNN
BRIDGET EARLY | OPINION CO-EDITOR | firstname.lastname@example.org
My fellow students,
It’s time for us to have a conversation about something I hoped we’d be beyond by this point. As students at a predominantly white institution, the racial implications of blackface may not be something that you spend a lot of time thinking about, so before I continue, and if you take nothing else away from this, it has to be said: don’t ever wear blackface. Ever.
There’s nothing you can say that will ever make blackface less racist than it is, so save the whining for something else.
For those of you who have been walking through life without a basic understanding of American history, blackface is when a non-black person makes themself darker using makeup or paint, which belittles and caricaturizes the black community. Blackface is often accompanied by stereotypical clothing and affected mannerisms that contribute to an incredibly racist, oppressive image of what it is to be black.
Blackface was invented for the purpose of gleaning amusement from black people — white minstrels in black face paint would dance and sing so that other white people could laugh at their portrayed idiocy. Today, even with an established understanding that such behavior is offensive, white people continue the practice at sporting events, for costumes, at rallies and at social events.
It’s downright ugly that blackface is such a frequently recurring issue. Just recently, Ralph Northam, the Governor of Virginia, was found in a yearbook photo wearing blackface — and, as though it weren’t problematic enough, standing next to a peer in full Ku Klux Klan regalia. This past Wednesday, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring came forward to announce that he too appeared in blackface in college, as if that somehow absolved Northam of his offense.
Aside from Virginia’s decaying leadership, there have been numerous instances of blackface in the news within the past year. From the racial implications surrounding a recalled Gucci sweater to photos of Covington Catholic High School’s blackout-turned-blackface basketball game, blackface has remained a staple for white institutions looking to continue enforcing racial power dynamics by denigrating black people.
Though problematic in its own right, blackface is a symptom of a larger issue. Racism is still alive and well in America. Finding humor in belittling actions like blackface and continuing to make excuses for appropriative or aggressive behaviors teaches Americans — especially younger generations — that racial differences are comedic or have an inherent, twisted entertainment value.
As college students at a predominantly white institution — and simply as as human beings — we have a responsibility to create an environment where behavior like this is unacceptable. Call your peers out on racist behavior when you see it, because apathy and passivity are just as bad as making your own racist statements. If you ever hope to maintain your own dignity or command the respect of others, do yourself a solid and leave your skin the shade it is.