Does America Still Have a Blackface Problem?
Virginia Governor Ralph Northam has no intention of resigning. While he maintains that it was not him pictured in the controversial blackface image from his college yearbook, he has admitted to wearing blackface makeup on another occasion while dressing up as Michael Jackson. Many Americans think of blackface as an outmoded form of racism – others see the Northam incident as evidence that blackface is still very much a problem in America. More at Vox.
Blackface is in the news. But then, blackface always seems to be in the news. As long as there are costume party revelers, thickheaded college students, button-pushing artists, free-associating designers and plain old unrepentant racists, there will be blackface.
I understand why people’s initial reaction would be to recoil upon hearing of someone wearing blackface today. But the prosecutor in me can’t help but think of the years listening to judges tell juries that there is no crime without criminal intent… we must recognize that dressing in blackface as a way of dehumanizing the black community is different than trying to physically resemble an admired black person at a Halloween party. Intent is everything.
White people designed blackface to keep black people down, to intimidate, mock and stereotype. It began during the 19th century and wasn’t about white people honoring the talent of black people by dressing up to look like them. It was about mocking them and depicting them as lazy, stupid and less than fully human. It was a tool of oppression. As a college kid in Virginia during the 1980s, I knew that, and so did my classmates. But a whole lot of white people seem to not know that history, or understand why blackface is so offensive, whether it’s practiced by a college student or a new doctor.