Earlier this week I posted a story about a guest speaker at a private school who dressed in blackface to teach about a white missionary.
I am sick to death of revisiting conversations about blackface, but here we are in an endless news cycle discussing this image from the Virginia governor’s med school yearbook, circa 1984.
Lawd heyzeus. Really?
Yes, really, in 1984.
Now, I grew up in Richmond, VA, and most of my extended family still live there. The Klan was, and no doubt low key probably still is, a big thing there; I remember seeing them march on occasion down Monument Avenue—or the Avenue of Losers as I like to call the tribute street to the Confederate leaders. Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson shared a holiday in January; which eventually became Lee-Jackson-King Day—yes, Martin Luther King, Jr. shares a holiday with confederate leaders, because #virginaisforhatersandlovers
I don’t recall seeing a lot of blackface, but I certainly knew what it was and that it was a no-no. Folks who wore blackface, well, they were to be avoided because they probably wore or knew people who wore hoods.
So, Ralph Northam, Virginia’s beleaguered governor, included a picture of two dudes on his personalized med school yearbook page. One dude is dressed in blackface, and the other is dressed in a Klan ensemble.
He apologized this past Friday for the picture.
On Saturday he said (paraphrased), “I’ve been really looking at it and I don’t think it was me. I called some old classmates to see if they thought it was me, and I’m pretty sure that’s not me.”
But he continued, “I’m pretty sure because there was this other time I did blackface as Michael Jackson and I used shoe polish to ‘darken’ my face and the shoe polish was hard to get off.”
Say what now?
To be clear, he denied being in the Klan robe, but says he’s not the one in blackface either because he did blackface some *other* time, and the time in the picture wasn’t it, despite the fact that its on his personalized yearbook page.
The page he now says he doesn’t know how it came to be.
When I tell y’all that this foolishness is exhausting, it is an understatement.
It’s convenient that he cops to the blackface because clearly of the two absurdly racist folks in the picture copping to blackface is infinitely still better than admitting to being the one in the Klan robe.
This is where we are folks—the choice between a robe and shoe polish, and shoe polish is the lesser of evils.
And he has not resigned and doesn’t seem to intend to. And that is really the demonstration of privilege here. When you have ascended to the highest position, your day of reckoning comes and you think it doesn’t apply to you because it just doesn’t.
Here’s the thing, Ralph, the MJ blackface wearer, may really be a new creature. He may have genuinely eschewed being the racist prick that this image suggests. He may genuinely believe in social justice. He may be genuine in his friendships and relationships with people of color—incidentally during the explanatory presser this weekend he shouted out having African American friends and I laughed heartily. He may even come up with the story of his parents marching with King because, why not?
It could all be true, and he still has to go, because when you do dirt and it comes to light then a day of reckoning follows. How is anyone supposed to take him seriously after this? I know I can’t.
And to the MAGA folks and their whataboutisms…have all the seats. All of them. In the back. In fact, turn your chairs to face the wall! Your political house is infested from the top down, go handle that and then we can talk. Dems are in surgery right now excising this problem.
So, Hope and I were chatting about this last night; she’s away on a school trip but called to wish her mama a happy birthday (because she’s awesome!). She’d heard a bit of what was happening, and I was filling her in. She was bewildered about how this yearbook photo came back to bite Ralph in the arse.
It was a teachable moment about how a picture in a book went viral and how easily it could happen, so just think how easy a picture already on the internet could go viral.
I’m a GenXer; I grew up in an analog world and transitioned to digital as I emerged into adulthood. I’m grateful that a lot of dumb stuff wasn’t documented in film or on jump drives. My daughter has never known a world where snapping a picture didn’t involve a swipe or tap. We had a nice chat about what that meant for her, and her friends and how she controls her image because yeah, actions and images have consequences, even if those consequences don’t pop off for 35 years. Parents, remind your kids that sometimes pictures have big consequences so gauge yourselves accordingly.
So here’s my shout out to Gov. Northam:
Ralph, I voted for you. I was rooting for you, and you’ve said some dumb ish this week, but this is ridiculous.
I quit you.
Here’s the thing…it’s not just about this picture; it’s the larger story that it tells.
Best case scenario, it wasn’t you (that time because it wasn’t the Michael Jackson blackface time…smh). You still rolled with a crew who included folks who thought it was cool. You were ok with it. You thought it was hilarious; you probably thought it was just jokes and who was going to have a problem with any of it anyway because it was just a group of like minded folks doing like minded things. So this is also about the character of those with whom you surround yourself.
I don’t buy that you didn’t know that picture was in the yearbook. In my yearbooks, I carefully thought about my quotes and the pictures I was asked to approve to include. You included that photo because it was funny and characterized you and the funny guy folks knew you to be. Just jokes, right? There’s no hipster irony on the page; irony doesn’t seem like it was a thing for you. Those pictures encapsulated who you were and who folks knew you to be. This page is how you chose to be remembered during med school. This is what you wanted your friends and would-be colleagues to see and remember you as the funny, authentic guy you were in med school. And we see it Ralph.
And it was all so casual that it was utterly forgettable, which is what makes it just so shocking in context 35 years later. The casual racism was so insidious that you didn’t even remember it; that looking back you marvel at how the page could have possibly been approved because it was sooooo racist to include the picture that you couldn’t have possibly done that! No Ralph, it was so casual and occurred in an environment that was so casually, persistently racist that of course the image was approved for inclusion.
Tell us Ralph, as you flip through your yearbook, did you have any POC classmates? Gosh, I wonder what it felt like for them just learning and being in an environment that would think nothing of approving such images for inclusion in what would also be *their* med school yearbook. But of course, it’s clear that no one, including you, really thought about that much, huh?
If fact, it was so just regular for you and those who surrounded you that when your campaign managers over the years no doubt asked you before each campaign, “Is there anything out there that could be a problem?” you replied, No.
Of course no, because even if you had left all of that behind, it was so casual, so reflective of you in that moment, that you had forgotten about it. I mean, it was just a picture of two fun loving dudes yucking it up at a party in blackface and a Klansman hood. It’s forgettable when it happens so often and it doesn’t impact you because you’re white. It was just this thing you had done in your “youth” at 25 (an age by which apparently POC are socially believed to be middle aged by comparison; y’all stay accusing our children of adult behavior while white kids get to be kids until they’re like 45, but I digress).
And so even if you are the real deal now, a believer in social justice, your drawers have skid marks. We don’t expect perfection and demanding that you be held accountable for being and/or wanting to be remembered as a racist prick in your mid-20s isn’t a high bar as far as accountability goes.
And even if this story was planted by opposition as payback for some other political stuff, the fact remains that it was there for the plucking. It was there because you created it, because again, it was your memory page that was a snapshot of who you were and how you wanted your friends and colleagues to remember you. You can downplay it, but it is what it is.
And now, here we are, watching you at a press conference say that that isn’t you in the picture because that wasn’t the time you actually did blackface for a contest. Of COURSE it’s not you in the Klan robe. I mean, really…Ralph. #sarcasm
Your wife had to say it was “inappropriate circumstances” when you looked around to see if there was enough room to actually show you could still moonwalk. #unreal #eagerfordistraction
You topped it off with the cherry—but I have African American friends. #thegotomoveofreformedracists
Sigh, we know, Ralph, we know, and we still need you to step down and gracefully exit stage left.
You can even moonwalk if you like.
I hope that you live out the rest of your life truly devoted to social justice issues and teaching kids and young adults to be mindful of the company they keep and how they portray their images online and in print. You can be a great spokesperson for the repercussions of bad decisions and what reform can do for you.
I know it will take some time for you to get to that place, but for now, please, just go.
Post Script: The irony of doing blackface to mimic a person whose skin was lightening by the month…just sigh…smh.