The controversy over a 1980s photograph allegedly showing Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam in a blackface costume shows us that racist caricatures and behaviors endure — and exist even in our own progressive backyard.
It’s never easy to come face to face with someone’s offensive perceptions and stereotypes of you, or your people. For African Americans, it goes with being black in a country that long ago made up its mind about what blackness means — and who we are.
I’ve been reeling over the blackface controversy surrounding Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, who owned up to, then suspiciously denied, painting his face black, wearing an Afro wig and donning a minstrel outfit when he was at Eastern Virginia Medical School in the 1980s.
A photo on Northam’s yearbook page shows a man wearing the racist get-up and standing next to another person wearing a white-hooded Ku Klux Klan outfit. In one image, you have the twin evils lurking in the lowest chambers of America’s racial psyche — the denigration and mocking of black people and the joyful obliviousness, among some in our own time, to the horrors perpetrated against them by white supremacists throughout our history.
There are so many things to say about the photo, Northam’s clueless and self-incriminating behavior in the aftermath, the yearbook’s decision to publish it, the school’s apparent failure to do anything about it for decades and the Virginia attorney general’s admission that he too wore blackface in the 1980s, that I can’t get to them all in this column.
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For starters, we should view the Northam blackface scandal as part of a broader reckoning over race, representation and appropriation in America, from the old country of the South to the cities of destiny way out West, including Seattle.
Blackface — or at least the enduring impulse that makes people want to mock, objectify and terrorize a racial group whose history on this continent started for the most part in the hulls of slave ships — travels well. And it takes different forms.
It turned up at GM’s largest transmission plant in Ohio, where black employees reportedly have been subjected to lynching nooses, Nazi and “whites only” graffiti and, recently, a monkey doll, on work property, according to a lawsuit that a group of black employees filed.
Just a few weeks ago, two white University of Oklahoma students were forced to drop out over a video they made in which one of them dons blackface and refers to herself using the n-word. At an anti-racism rally on campus in response to the video, a man turned up wearing blackface too, apparently to taunt the demonstrators.
There’s been an uptick in racist attacks, vandalism and intimidation, especially nooses found in public places, since the 2016 presidential election.
Here in progressive Seattle, we seem so far removed from the bitter racial history of the South, where offensive caricatures of blacks were commonplace and where extrajudicial hangings of black people often took on the cheery atmosphere of a country picnic. It’s easy for us to ignore the obvious fact that white supremacy, brute racism, cultural obliviousness and problematic imagery migrated here right along with transplants from other places.
Identity-based incidents, especially against blacks, have spiked here too. Just last summer I wrote about the repeated defacement and mutilation of artworks around Seattle featuring a black teenager.
The situation in Virginia brings to mind an even more distant chapter from our own past.
Gov. Northam reportedly was known by his peers as “Coonman.” It sickens me to even mention the name in this column.
The name evokes a crudely nostalgic, derogatory caricature of a chicken-stealing black man that showed up often in the late 19th century and early 20th century in blackface minstrel performances and in advertisements — and as collectibles in people’s curio cabinets.
The always smiling, dandyish character reinforced the Southern white myth of happy black slaves at peace, indeed in love with, their lowest-rung status — as if slavery were somehow desirable.
In the Seattle area in the early part of the 20th century, there was the Coon Chicken Inn, a Southern-style fried-chicken restaurant on the Bothell Highway just north of the city limits that was popular until the late 1940s.
The restaurant was notable for its logo featuring a clownish, grinning, black cartoon character, and for its 12-foot-high entrance in the shape of that grinning minstrel-inspired face. According to a historical account of the restaurant by Catherine Roth, the restaurant made spare-tire covers featuring the logo that customers could put on their cars to advertise their support for the place as they drove around town.
The restaurant’s logo was for the most part uncontroversial in North Seattle. Even more unsettling is the fact that the caricature was one of the few signs of blackness in the area, since racially restrictive housing covenants essentially prevented real African Americans from settling there.
Casually bigoted images, attitudes and behaviors sometimes endure because they seem less harmful than injustices that have a clear material impact on people, such as redlining in housing or job discrimination or identity-based harassment and violence.
But there are few things more fraught in a multicultural society than one group’s depiction of another. That’s especially true when members of a historically (and presently) privileged group reinforce their undue status by celebrating images and behaviors that do nothing but humiliate, then act like they had no idea what they did was harmful.
We’re always brushing up against each other’s sensibilities and mishandling people’s histories, while resisting the notion that some things are “never OK,” from wearing blackface to racially problematic physical contact such as touching black people’s hair.
For the collective outrage over the Virginia scandal to be truly meaningful, it should open up a conversation in this community about how racial mindlessness and hostility play out right here, in our own backyard.
Cultural incompetence is widespread, and competency is a tall order. But we have to strive for it.
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