The predominant hot take on the Ralph Northam blackface controversy is that it’s a politically-damaging debacle for the Democrats—and that it may be—but it should also be a reckoning for every American, from those in the fashion industry to the Halloween frat parties, who has long treated blackface as a relatively benign offense.
The fact that not just the governor of Virginia but also the state’s attorney general indulged in blackface—not as unwitting children but as adults who certainly knew the act was both incendiary and wrong—should be an inflection point for a dirty little secret: blackface is still a potent part of our culture, not just an embarrassing emblem of our past.
One could easily see Northam, who says he donned blackface in the mid-‘80s to impersonate Michael Jackson, making the same protestations college kids or reality stars do when they’re caught darkening up to portray famous figures of color virtually every Halloween: “It’s a tribute,” either they or some tone-deaf headlines will say.
Most Americans today are so removed from the heyday of blackface, when an entertainer like Al Jolson could cement their iconic status with it, that, like the Confederate flag, it is embraced by some as a triumphant act of transgressive rebellion and/or willful ignorance, a thumb in the eye of the politically correct.
For instance, it’s usually overlooked whenever these flare-ups occur that blackface played a central role in D.W. Griffith’s groundbreaking (and profoundly racist) 1915 KKK recruitment film The Birth of a Nation.
There’s a proprietary nature to this phenomenon—it feels like a conversation amongst and exclusively for the most privileged of white people: “I should be able to do whatever I want, including be black.”
This hubris was parodied to great comic effect in Ben Stiller’s 2008 comedy Tropic Thunder, where real-life A-list movie star Robert Downey, Jr. plays a fictional, pompous A-list actor who dyes his own skin black in an absurd attempt to take method acting to the extreme.
Stiller’s conceit allowed Downey to do an exaggerated caricature of a 1970s soul brother, albeit with enough distance that audiences knew the joke was on him, not on black people (the Academy rewarded the performance with an Oscar nomination).
There was Dan Aykroyd yukking it up as a Jamaican opposite Eddie Murphy in Trading Places.
Angelina Jolie darkening her skin and donning a curly wig to portray the Afro-Cuban Mariane Pearl in A Mighty Heart.
And how about the infamous scene in the 1976 hit Silver Streak where Gene Wilder tries to pass as a black man alongside a mortified Richard Pryor.
Not faring quite as well was C. Thomas Howell in the critically reviled 1986 “comedy” Soul Man, where he plays a white student passing as black to get a minority scholarship to Harvard. That film was greeted with protests.
Many of these moments and characters have made me—and I assume a lot of other African-Americans—laugh, and they still do, but those laughs have grown more uncomfortable with time and distance.
At the very least, these works (and classic films like West Side Story, that covered white actors in heavy makeup to appear Puerto Rican) can and should be re-evaluated, or left in the past for good. In the same way we can’t listen to R. Kelly’s music or watch Roman Polanski’s films without grappling with their sordid histories, we can no longer view blackface as simply a punchline or a prank.
Pop culture isn’t wholly responsible for the legacy of blackface, but it may have made the world safer for it.
My education on blackface never came in school; rather, it came in the form of the little-seen, underrated 2000 Spike Lee satire Bamboozled.
The film audaciously tries to link the hate-fueled minstrel shows of the turn of the century—some of which starred black performers themselves in darker, garish paint that exaggerated their features—with the problematic pop-culture output of the past several decades.
It posits that an uptight, conservative middle class black man (played by Damon Wayans) could rise up the ranks of a major television network by launching a modern-day minstrel variety show, with a tap-dancing Savion Glover in the lead.
It all builds to an eye-opening finale that shows a dizzying montage of footage from decades of film which drove home some of the most insulting and cruel imagery of African-Americans ever seen.
Bamboozled was too hot to handle when it came out nearly 20 years ago—as with many of Lee’s films, it’s an acquired taste that feels more prescient now than it did then.
Eighteen years later, we have grown numb to the headlines about the nooses, white supremacist marches, the first black president being hung in effigy, and yes, blackface.
It’s almost been entirely forgotten that cable-news powerhouse Megyn Kelly was shown the door at NBC just last October after asking “what is racist” about blackface. Even her apology, in which she said she’d previously thought painting your face in this manner was ok “as long as it was respectful,” presumed that doing this can ever be respectful.
There is a duality of thought here among the white people who participate in this egregious practice, and its consistent with the thinking of those who claimed it was innocent to portray President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama as apes.
They either know the long, racist history of these practices and the profound damage they’ve done or they are truly ignorant of that history—and in both scenarios there is no excuse and the crisis is clear: there needs to be a re-education and reckoning when it comes to people who do this.
It’s not enough to pressure Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring to resign—they could, and probably should, but that wouldn’t erase the problem.
People need to understand that every time a white person dons blackface it is akin to them raising the Confederate flag. It’s not just a symbol, it’s a symbol of hate. Going forward we can’t simply say this is wrong, we need to emphasize why it’s wrong.
Blackface has been used to systematically dehumanize, degrade and disenfranchise people by propagating the very worst stereotypes about black people. So if you ever do it, you must understand: you are now a part of that legacy, for better or worse.