Governor Northam, no Surprise, but Disappointment and Opportunity

In my home state of Virginia, there are more people than ever before talking about race, debating whether Governor Northam should resign due to racist photos on his medical school yearbook page. It seems like even more people are concerned about whether Northam is racist than were ever concerned about white supremacist terrorism in Charlottesville less than two short years ago—-the kind of racist violence that actually killed people. And certainly way more people care about the Northam question than were ever concerned about the bill that was killed in the Virginia House to remove the confederate monuments in Charlottesville, or the one-man protest that Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax led by stepping out while the rest of the body honored Robert E. Lee.

Much of the public debate around Northam does not dispute that the photos on this page—one of a person in blackface, and another in KKK garb—are racist and offensive. Strangely, that seems to be the point of common agreement for many from all political angles. The most frequent points of disagreement seem to be whether something racist in his past should be held against him now. Questions raised include whether Northam should be forgiven, and whether the picture reflects who he is today. Practically everyone in his Democratic party, in the state (both U.S. senators and many key representatives, as well as past governors) have urged him to resign, and even politicians of national stature—Democratic as well as Republican—have called for his resignation. And the photo keeps flapping around like it’s normal, almost as if we have become desensitized to the pain and terror that these images signify to African Americans—stay in your place or face the consequences. White people of any and all political backgrounds are being asked to give their two cents—as if they are the new arbiters and experts of what this photo means. Journalists that are flocking to get the person-on-the-street opinion appear to be not unlike the foolish person who approaches someone who has never given birth to ask them what it feels like. How is it that we whites would have any idea what a continued governorship by the man in this photo would mean to the over 1.5 million African Americans living in the state, day in and day out? Quite simply, we don’t, so we should not get to decide.

But we can learn to develop empathy. We can get closer to the understanding that we were trained not to have. Even Pamela Northam, the governor’s wife, not exactly the poster child for being a white ally or an antiracist, knew enough to advise her husband that attempting to perform a moonwalk during a press conference intended to apologize for his past behavior, would not be “appropriate” at that moment he appeared to consider it. Imagine what actual work on true empathy with people of color might look like for white people. Even after 30 years dialoging and living in community, dialog, and family with African Americans, I did not even think of developing my own opinion on Northam or stating it out loud until I had engaged in some frank discussions with some African American friends whose opinions I respect and admire—-and whose opinions would likely be diverse, not uniform. And I am still learning.

But what I have learned from listening is Northam is not the first, nor will be the last, of whites they thought they could trust, but turned out to be a disappointment. As a white teenager dating an African American young man, I heard multiple testimonies right from local families about how their son thought they had a white girlfriend they could trust, but once the breakup happened and things went sour and she wanted revenge, it was all too simple for her and her family to bring the entire wrath of the racist court system down against them, simply by “crying statutory rape.” It worked every time here in good ol’ VA. And this was decades after the 1967 Loving v. Virginia ruling that made interracial marriage legal. It was only after I went on to study race in graduate school and as a scholar of race relations, that I learned about Emmett Till, and so many others where the testimony of whites, particularly white women, was all the excuse a community needed to round up people of color and do whatever violence they wished to them, without fear of repercussion, or concern for justice or getting the facts. In what Katheryn Russell-Brown has called “racial hoaxes,” dozens of whites over the years have committed a crime and tried to blame someone African American for it, and tragically the justice system locks right in on the profile—in the case of Charles Stuart, they even found an African American person to coerce into confessing to a crime he did not even commit. Whites can be shady like that. People of color are not surprised. It is not a matter of Republican or Democrat. When it comes to a white father protecting a white daughter, or a white family hoarding school district resources for their own family, there is no limit to the ends whites will go, regardless of party line, to enact their privilege in service of their own. Both Dr. King and Malcolm X were unequivocal on this point: the white moderate/white liberal was who they feared and distrusted more than the over white racists. So, yes, people like Northam with a “surprise” racist photo lurking in the background are really not all that much of a surprise to many folks of color. You always have to watch your back.

Too often, individual whites who get caught saying something racist end up giving what Michael Eric Dyson calls a “dress up, fess up” press conference that falls woefully short of actual remorse, and Northam’s was no exception to that pattern. As Dyson argues, a true apology is not a self-centered attempt at clearing one’s name—it is focused on those harmed, in a way that pledges making amends, in an ongoing meaningful way to those one has harmed. What so many whites fail to realize is that our country was founded on racism, and continues to thrive on that foundation, so it is practically inevitable that almost all of us will have either inadvertently or purposely been witness to racism without interrupting it, and/or will enact racism ourselves. It is no big revelation that we all have racism in our pasts, and likely in our present. It is what we do with that information, how we pledge to live our lives going forward, to undo what we (and those who went before us) have caused going forward, that is the true measure of our characters. This requires empathy, and an ongoing commitment that lasts well beyond when the flashing lights are over, when the news cycle has moved onto the next hot take. And most importantly, it is the kind of work that would take many others along with us in the fight for justice, as opposed to merely seeking to clear our own names.

As Bonilla-Silva so brilliantly states, by focusing on these individual stories of “bad apples” we miss the much more important bigger picture of the “rotten apple tree.” We are all bound up together on this tree and implicated within it. I believe Governor Northam resigning and everyone going on as usual will not do much to change things here in Virginia. Virginia is leading the way in problems of institutional racism in this country, as one of 12 US states where over half the prison population is black (yet less than 20 percent of the state’s population), and many of those become disenfranchised after finishing their time. We have a deep history of educational segregation, and continuing racial and economic divides between our school districts have actually worsened tremendously in the past decade.

Should Northam continue to ignore the multitude of voices urging him to resign, being coy and defiant about whether or not he even remembers being in the photo (but does remember using blackface on another occasion), he is not going to earn back the public trust. Most people who care about racism and truly understand it know that this is not about figuring out what’s “in his heart”—which is where the predictable conversation often goes when debating any racist politician, Trump or otherwise– but rather what kind of policies he is willing to support and go to bat for. Clearly, Northam was not standing at his Lieutenant Governor’s side when Lt Gov Justin Fairfax sat out the Robert E. Lee tribute, alone, hoping for a new America 400 years later. Being on the right side of racial justice when it matters, over and over again, even when your party does not agree with you, is one way to rebuild it, and it will take time, not a brief press conference. Not even time that the news cycle has time for. Time will tell if Northam is ready to get out of his own way, and lead Virginians by example, in humbling himself to understand what antiracist commitment really means.

Eileen O’Brien is a Professor of Sociology at Saint Leo U. and the author of several books on white racism issues, including Whites Confront Racism.

What’s up with Racism and Halloween?

As October comes to a close each year, Americans seem to happily traipse around in costumes that flaunt the most racist stereotypes. So, what’s up with racism and Halloween?

In case you’ve missed some of the recent documentation of American racism at Halloween, Ebony Magazine has a wonderfully awful slideshow showcasing 10 of the Most Racist Halloween Costumes. Perhaps the most egregiously racist and just plain callous of these are the blackface Trayvon Martin costumes shared on social media:

 

(Image source: New York Daily News)

Halloween marks All Hallows’ Eve, the day before All Saints’ Day (Nov.1), a holy day on the Christian calendar for remembering the dead. According to many scholars, Halloween is a Christianized feast with pagan roots. Early American settler colonialists, the Puritans of New England, were strongly opposed to celebrating Halloween, as it was seen as devil worship (a harbinger to today’s Hell Houses created by evangelical Christians). The holiday came to the U.S. via Irish and Scottish immigration during the 19th century and it was gradually assimilated into mainstream society and by the first decade of the 20th century (Rogers, Nicholas. Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, NY: Oxford University Press, 2002). In the contemporary U.S., Halloween bears t is no longer a solemn remembrance of the dead, but a bacchanalian night of revelry that features a high volume of racist costumes.
If you’re going to dress up for Halloween and are still trying to decide what to wear, there are several guidelines available online about how to avoid wearing a racist costume, or tell if your costume is racist, or find the ways you’re wrong about your racist costume.

Still, even with these handy guides available, white people seem to keep getting this wrong.  Terribly wrong.  Case in point, minor celebrity Julianne Hough showed up at a Halloween party in prison jumpsuit and blackface as a character from the Netflix series Orange is the New Black:

 


(Image source: Cosmo)

For her part, Hough took to Twitter to apologize, in a “I’m sorry if you’re offended,” non-apology kinda way:

“I am a huge fan of the show Orange Is The New Black, actress Uzo Aduba, and the character she has created. It certainly was never my intention to be disrespectful or demeaning to anyone in any way. I realize my costume hurt and offended people and I truly apologize.”

 

Hough’s costume and non-apology are just the kind of thing that Jamilah Lemieux is referring to in her piece at Ebony in which she suggests that white folks actually don’t care that their Halloween costumes are racist.

There are plenty of excuses for racist Halloween costumes, but not knowing about the history of blackface can no longer be one of them thanks to this excellent Brief History of Blackface Just in Time for Halloween, by Prof. Blair L. M. Kelley.  Her account is worth quoting here:

Blackface minstrelsy first became nationally popular in the late 1820s when white male performers portrayed African-American characters using burnt cork to blacken their skin. Wearing tattered clothes, the performances mocked black behavior, playing racial stereotypes for laughs. Although Jim Crow was probably born in the folklore of the enslaved in the Georgia Sea Islands, one of the most famous minstrel performers, a white man named Thomas “Daddy” Rice brought the character to the stage for the first time. Rice said that on a trip through the South he met a runaway slave, who performed a signature song and dance called jump Jim Crow. Rice’s performances, with skin blackened and drawn on distended blood red lips surrounded by white paint, were said to be just Rice’s attempt to depict the realities of black life.

Jim Crow grew to be minstrelsy’s most famous character, in the hands of Rice and other performers Jim Crow was depicted as a runaway: “the wheeling stranger” and “traveling intruder.” The gag in Jim Crow performances was that Crow would show up and disturb white passengers in otherwise peaceful first class rail cars, hotels, restaurants, and steamships. Jim Crow performances served as an object lesson about the dangers of free black people, so much so that the segregated spaces first created in northern states in the 1850s were popularly called Jim Crow cars.  Jim Crow became synonymous with white desires to keep black people out of white, middle-class spaces.

 

(Image source: Wikipedia)

 

The fact that every year at Halloween, there is a return to these centuries-old racist imagery says something about our society.  Lorraine Berry observes that the the “romp” and “drunkenness” (either on candy or alcohol) that mark the holiday speaks to our inability as a culture to acknowledge death in a straightforward manner.

From where I sit, the American Halloween marks an annual display and celebration of the racist roots of this society.

 

 

Majoring in Minstrelsy: White Students, Blackface and the Failure of Mainstream Multiculturalism

[This by Tim Wise piece was originally published, June 22, 2007 at Lip Magazine.]

Sometimes you just have to ask, “What is wrong with you?”

I’ve been asking this question a lot lately, given the almost monthly reports that white college students at one or another campus have yet again displayed a form of racist ignorance so stupefying as to boggle the imagination.

For some, it means dressing up in blackface. For others, a good time means throwing a “ghetto party,” in which they don gold chains, afro wigs, and strut around with 40 ounce bottles of malt liquor, mocking low-income black folks. For still others, hoping to spread around the insults a bit, fun is spelled, “Tacos and Tequila,” during which bashes students dress up as maids, landscapers, or pregnant teenagers so as to make fun of Latino/as.

The 2006-2007 school year saw at least fifteen such events transpire, bringing to well over thirty the number of such incidents in recent years. Among the institutions where white kids apparently think this kind of thing is funny, we have the University of Texas School of Law, Trinity College, Whitman College, Washington University, the University of Virginia, Clemson, Willamette College, Texas A&M, The University of Connecticut School of Law, Stetson University, the University of Chicago, Cornell, Swarthmore, Emory, MIT, Macalester, Johns Hopkins, Dartmouth, the University of Louisville, the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater, William Jewell College, Oklahoma State, Auburn, the University of California at Irvine, Syracuse, Tarleton State, Union College and the Universities of Colorado, Tennessee, Arizona, Alabama, Illinois, Delaware, and Mississippi.

Whether racist parties like this are growing more common, or whether they’re just gaining more attention thanks to websites like Facebook, MySpace, and others that allow the sharing of photo files is unclear. But in either case, the question remains: Why do so many whites engage in these kinds of activities, without giving their appropriateness a second thought?

There are generally two theories postulated to answer this question. The first holds that these students are ignorant about the history of blackface, and the racist implications of mocking the so-called ghetto. The second suggests that the whites involved are anything but ignorant. According to the latter theory, the students know exactly what they’re doing, and are deliberately trying to make a statement, as a form of backlash against students of color on their campuses.

While it may be tempting to accept one or another of these explanations, both might contain a partial truth. For some–like those who have thrown these parties on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday (as happened a half-dozen times this past year)–it is hard to believe that they were unaware of the racial message they were sending. On the other hand, persons dressing in blackface as part of a Halloween costume, while offensive, may well be acting from sheer stupidity, absent malicious intent.*

The truth is probably somewhere between the two theories. It’s certainly true that most whites are unaware of the way that blackface has been used historically to denigrate the intellect and humanity of blacks. And most probably know little about the history of how ghetto communities were created by government and economic elites, to the detriment of those who live there. Yet, at some level, most of those engaged in these activities had to know they were treading on offensive ground. After all, never did the sponsors of these parties make the mistake of inviting real black people to the ghetto celebration. They knew better, apparently, than to approach their campus’s Black Student Associations and ask them to co-sponsor the events. They didn’t ask Latino students to come to “Tacos and Tequila,” so as to lend authenticity to the fun. Had they been acting out of pure ignorance, they wouldn’t have hesitated to try and make the events into multicultural funfests. But they never made this mistake, suggesting that even if only subconsciously, they had to know something was wrong.

There are several potential causes of racist theme parties. Among the more obvious would be the insular nature of the Greek system, from which a disproportionate number of these events have emanated. After all, fraternities and sororities mostly choose members based on how much alike they are to those already in the club. They are not, in other words, natural incubators for diversity. Nor are they the kinds of places where dissent typically flourishes. So if one’s brothers or sisters were planning a racist party, even those who were bothered by it might not speak up, for fear of being ostracized. But as easy as it might be to beat up on the Greeks, there are much larger institutional issues involved. Not to mention, there has also been a massive failure of white students, including those not involved in fraternities or sororities, to take a stand against these kinds of events.

Watered-Down Multiculturalism as a Cause of White Racist Behavior

For the past two decades, most colleges have engaged in various types of diversity efforts, from affirmative action policies, to the creation of multicultural affairs offices, to diversity-related programming. Yet the way in which diversity and multiculturalism have typically been approached on campus, leads one to wonder whether or not the messages being sent might actually contribute to the kinds of racism on display in events like ghetto parties or blackface incidents. Sadly, diversity on campus is still most often approached as it was at my college, Tulane University, in the 1980s, with little having changed since then. Namely, in most instances, schools push the “celebrate differences” paradigm of diversity, in which everyone is encouraged to be tolerant and to appreciate the cultural contributions of all the different racial and ethnic groups. While this may sound good, in practice it creates problems.

First, “tolerance” can be used as a weapon to insist that we should be tolerant of racist humor too. As such, emphasizing toleration rather than equity of treatment may contribute to a climate where students feel comfortable throwing these kinds of parties, because after all, “it’s just a joke.” Secondly, by implying that race issues are about culture (and not power differences between whites and folks of color), most diversity efforts allow whites to think of blackness as little more than style, which can be appropriated, copied or mimicked, without making fun of black people per se, or furthering inequity. In this kind of multiculturalism, the power dynamic that makes racially insensitive humor hurtful isn’t discussed. Students are encouraged to see how “We’re all different” (and gee, isn’t that interesting?), but are not asked to reflect on the biggest difference of all: in this case, the one regarding who’s on top and who’s not in the larger society.

Even worse, to copy what they see as black culture and style, is just as likely to be seen by such persons as celebratory and positive, as negative and demeaning. In other words, it’s as if they were saying, “Hey, we’re just celebrating difference! Look at me, I’m a rapper!” Now sure, they may have a horribly stunted view of what constitutes both celebration and true cultural difference (seeing as how they clearly equate blackness with the gangsta image), but their assumptions in this regard make sense, stemming from a context-absent analysis, in which issues of power are largely missing.

Additionally, by avoiding issues of power, mainstream multiculturalism makes it possible for whites who see no harm in blackface or ghetto parties, to respond to their critics by saying things like, “Well, what about that movie ‘White Chicks,’ where the Wayans brothers put on white face makeup and made fun of people like us?” In other words, whites see all groups as equally capable of objectifying each other, so what’s the big deal? Indeed, if you’re being taught to view issues of race as the mere pluralistic existence of different groups, perhaps competing for resources and attention, but without a discussion of power, this kind of argument has a certain kind of logic to it. Of course, once the social context is brought in, it makes no sense at all. There has been no history of whiteface as a mechanism for denigrating the intelligence of whites, whereas blackface served precisely that purpose. “White Chicks” conjures up no painful memories, and is so devoid of the historical ‘umph’ of blackface, that to consider it in the same category as minstrelsy is to call into question one’s ability to think rationally at all.

What’s more, because mainstream multiculturalism rarely explores the historical or sociological roots of what some now think of as cultural phenomena, it is also possible for whites to view “the ghetto” as an authentic expression of black culture, rather than understanding it as a geopolitical space occupied by persons whose opportunities have been constricted. To most whites, ghettos are culturally-specific spaces, either to be feared, turned into style, or even romanticized as more “real” than the places from which most of them come. If they had an understanding of how the ghetto became the ghetto–a history of residential segregation, urban “renewal,” which destroyed black homes and neighborhoods, and deindustrialization, beginning in the ’60s–many of the whites who have participated in these kinds of activities might have thought twice about it. If they understood that the ghetto is something that has been done to millions of black people–that indeed it is more an expression of white supremacist culture than anything authentically black–many might recognize that throwing parties celebrating or mocking ghetto life would be hardly different from throwing concentration camp or internment camp parties. But if whites think of the ghetto as an authentic expression of blackness, they’ll be less likely to feel shame while making fun of such a place. Indeed, they may not even view a ghetto party as making fun at all, so much as being a romanticization of a place that both fascinates and terrifies them.

So long as diversity talk avoids issues of power and privilege, opting instead for cultural tourism, whereby we’re encouraged to sample one another’s stuff, from food, to clothing, to hairstyles–note the phenomena of white boys wearing dreadlocks, and white girls with tight braids–we can expect this kind of thing to continue. After all, what could be more “touristy” than dressing like the people whose culture you’re sampling? To many whites, blackface, or putting on an Afro and fake bling, is just a more up-to-date and hipper version of the Hawaiian shirt their dad wears every time the family goes to Honolulu.

Until colleges include discussions of power, inequality and privilege (and how these can misshape the campus climate) during first-year orientation programs, and with all students, they really can’t feign shock or outrage when some proceed to act out their ignorance on a public stage. Until schools clearly define what a racially hostile environment is, and what is to be viewed as contributing to such a climate–and what kinds of acts will therefore not be tolerated, just as they would not be in the workplace–they can’t be surprised when students feel they can get away with virtually anything, no matter how offensive. Finally, so long as colleges turn a blind eye to the overwhelmingly white student pathology of epidemic binge drinking that has served as the backdrop for most if not all of these racist parties–indeed, white students are 130 percent more likely to binge drink than blacks, and 300 percent more likely to do so on a regular basis–not much is going to change. This means attacking problem drinking as an abuse of privilege, and not just alcohol.

White Protectionism and the Need for Ally Behavior

In addition to the need for school officials to take action, students must also take responsibility for addressing these occurrences head-on. In particular, whites who are not involved in these acts need to stand up against those who are. Although some whites have joined with students of color to condemn these events when they’ve happened, quite telling has been the speed with which others have sought to downplay the racism evinced in such instances.

At Oklahoma State, one young man minimized the seriousness of the incident in his fraternity–in which one of his “brothers,” wearing a Klan hood, posed for a picture while holding a rope around the neck of another member who was dressed in blackface–by noting that the perpetrators were just “young men, having fun, no one was hurt, and above all nothing was meant by their actions.” At Stetson, a group of young women who dressed in blackface, claimed that their event had the blessing of the mostly black basketball team; and at Illinois, white sorority girls defended their “Tacos and Tequila” event by noting that their two Latina members were “cool with it” (as if a handful of black and brown folks can speak for their entire groups). The attorney for a group of white frat boys at Auburn even suggested that his clients had actually been trying to be “inclusive” by dressing in blackface, since the party theme was to come dressed as something you might see in the Auburn community.

Or consider the internet posting of a University of Texas law student, who didn’t participate in last year’s “ghetto fabulous” party, but who found more fault with those critiquing it, than those who threw it in the first place:

“Get over it. You were offended. You complained…Prolonging the drama only makes you look like attention whores — you aren’t trying to educate people, and you aren’t trying to create an atmosphere of inclusion, where people can understand your point of view. You want to continue to spank the naughty 1Ls. The Dean gave you recognition. Everyone in the law school received that email. Do you honestly think that prolonging the drama is going to do anything productive? And for the record, equating ghetto fabulous with blackface is really fucking stupid.”

In other words, the students who engaged in the racist objectification of blacks are “naughty,” but the students of color who complained are “attention whores,” and “f–ing stupid.”

Other whites at the law school voiced their displeasure at the possibility that the school may now alter its curricula, thereby forcing them to learn about racism–imagine having to learn about such an irrelevant subject while studying law. Still others criticized the black students for going public about the event (instead of handling things internally), since it might harm the careers of whites who didn’t participate, but who would now be tainted by the actions of a few. Instead of being upset at their white peers for throwing the racist party, and thereby tainting them as whites, their anger was focused on the black students for discussing it openly!

And in keeping with the tendency for white folks to seek out black scapegoats whenever one of ours engages in racism (as happened with Don Imus), many students have sought to shift the blame for things like ghetto parties onto hip-hop and rap music. In other words, white kids are just copying what they see on MTV, and if black folks can glamorize the ghetto, why can’t they? That rappers, for good or ill, are often telling stories about their own lives and communities from which they come (or at least with which they have some familiarity), while white co-eds are engaging in vulgar voyeurism devoid of authenticity escapes them. Not to mention, rap can hardly be blamed for the ignorance here: after all, black students, who last time I checked often liked hip-hop too, don’t throw these parties. Not ever.

Then there’s the tendency to redefine racist incidents as something else, like simple bad taste, or even political satire. The latter of these was offered as the excuse last year, after one Willamette student came to a party in blackface to mock the school’s President, and another (albeit a student of South Asian descent, but by most accounts highly white-identified) dressed as an indigenous woman who had been raped. Funny stuff.

Until white students become less concerned about hurting the feelings of a bunch of racists, or drunks (or both) by calling them out, and more committed to the creation of a respectful and equitable environment on campus, those whites who engage in acts of racism will feel no need to change their behaviors. Unless whites ostracize such students, those who find racism humorous will continue to push the envelope. Only by making clear that these kinds of things are unacceptable to us, will other whites apparently get the message that their actions are inexcusable. It’s obvious by now that they won’t respond to black and brown protests alone.

Perhaps we should think of it as an updated version of the white man’s (and woman’s) burden: not, as with the original and racist version, to “civilize” others, but instead to civilize ourselves, to grow up, and to enter into the world of adults as more functional human beings, rather than as the walking, talking stereotypes into which we too often turn ourselves.

———————–
* Putting aside whether or not blackface incidents or ghetto parties are intentionally racist (as opposed to being mostly the result of ignorance), there is little question but that overt racism poses a serious problem on college campuses. Data going back to the 80s suggests that there are thousands of instances of ethnoviolence (ranging from assaults, to graffiti, to racial slurs) directed towards students of color each year. A study at the University of California-San Diego in the 90s found that over eighty percent of white students admitted to having seen or heard racial slurs or acts of race-based discrimination aimed at students of color. And a 2004 survey at the University of Virginia found that forty percent of all black students at the school had been the target of a direct racial slur, while ninety-one percent had either experienced or witnessed an act of racial discrimination or intolerance since coming to the college. Additional research by Joe Feagin and Leslie Picca, published in their recent book, Two-Faced Racism, finds that white students often use racial slurs and express blatantly racist beliefs around their white friends and colleagues, even though they would rarely if ever do so publicly, or in front of the persons to whom the slurs are directed.