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Renée Graham

Blackface and the privilege of white ignorance

Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia arrives for a news conference in the governor's mansion in Richmond on Saturday.Steve Helber/AP Photo

Ralph Northam — racist cosplay connoisseur and, hopefully, soon-to-be former Virginia governor — is sprouting more excuses than a nervous child standing over Mom’s broken vase.

First, he apologized last Friday for a racist photo on his 1984 medical school yearbook page that went public last week; he stopped short of clarifying whether he was the guy in blackface or the one in full Klan regalia. At a terrible press conference a day later, Northam said that he’d never seen that photo before, didn’t purchase that yearbook, and blamed a mistake-prone yearbook staff for putting it on his page.


He declared, “I am not either of the people in that photo.”

Recognizing that old racist photos have a funny way of suddenly going viral, Northam added that while he didn’t don blackface that time, there was this other occasion when, as a participant in a San Antonio dance contest around the same year, he “darkened” his face “as part of a Michael Jackson costume.”

While there’s a lot of equivocating nonsense to wade through here, this was Northam’s most mendacious statement — he didn’t know blackface is racist.

During his gubernatorial run in 2017, Northam said, the subject of “blackfacing,” as he called it, came up in a conversation with his campaign assistant. “He really did a good job of communicating to me why that’s so offensive,” Northam claimed.

I don’t believe that a 59-year-old white man who grew up in rural Virginia in the 1960s and 1970s didn’t know that wearing blackface is offensive.

It’s not just white privilege that sustains white supremacy. It’s also the privilege of ignorance.

Given the number of photos in the Eastern Virginia Medical School’s 1984 yearbook that feature Northam’s classmates in blackface, I can’t imagine that racist clowning wasn’t a regular part of their experiences. You don’t black up your face or dress as a Klansman without recognizing the shock it will evoke. It’s a racist horror played as a joke for white people.


“In the place and time when I grew up, many actions that we rightfully recognize as abhorrent today, were commonplace,” Northam said. Of course, to black people they were always abhorrent, which is exactly why racists engaged in them. Still, there’s always another white person wearing blackface who, in the midst of outrage and condemnation, will use ignorance as a defense.

That’s what happened last year at California Polytechnic State Institute when a fraternity was sanctioned by its national organization for dressing as gang members, including one who wore blackface. This occurred during the college’s muticultural event.

Kyler Watkins claimed his ill-informed decision “to paint my face black had nothing whatsoever to do with racism or discrimination,” as he wrote at the time. He also said he only knew he had made “a grave mistake” after he learned that “blackface is of historical racial significance.”

At least once an academic year, some high school, university, or college comes under fire for students sporting blackface at a fraternity or sorority party, on Halloween, or whatever occasion is deemed appropriate for mocking black people. It happens so often, you’d think lessons about its egregious inappropriateness would be baked into freshman orientation.

Clearly, it’s not. Instead, it’s never enough to slather their white faces in burnt cork or shoe polish. The look always comes with gestures, speech, and expressions subscribed to black people, our culture and humanity replaced with caricatures, stereotypes, and jokes. Once in yearbooks, now they can be found on social media. The ramifications are few, and they know they can always feign innocence through ignorance.


For now, Northam remains Virginia’s governor. On Saturday, he said, “If we get to the point where we feel we are not effective, that we’re not efficient not only for our caucuses but for the commonwealth of Virginia, then we will revisit this and make decisions.”

Northam can no longer be effective. If he seeks redemption, he should do so outside of public life. He needs to moonwalk his ignorance out of the governership.

On his official Twitter page, Northam displays as his background a photo of himself sitting among a group of smiling children — most of them kids of color. (I wonder what they and their parents are thinking these days.) Northam clearly wanted to portray himself as a new leader for a new Virginia — vibrant, diverse, and looking toward a future removed from its tortured past.

In Virginia, as in the rest of the country, racism is never past. After too many racist photos, EVMS finally banned yearbooks after some students wore Confederate uniforms and posed in front of a Confederate flag. That was in 2013.

Of course, if those photos resurface decades later, those graduates will rely on the luxury of ignorance that their whiteness affords them. Until then, they may ascend to positions in our society where they can endanger African-Americans in ways far more insidious than by wearing traitorous outfits or blackface.


Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.