For the past two weeks, Virginia politics have been shaken by the discovery of a photograph featured in Gov. Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook page that depicts a man in blackface and one in a KKK robe. In that time, Northam has admitted to and then denied being in the photo; confessed to having worn shoe polish as part of a Michael Jackson costume the same year the photo was taken; and promised to go on a statewide listening tour while reading Ta-Nehisi Coates. His Attorney General Mark Herring meanwhile admitted to wearing “brown makeup” to a party when he was 19.* Amid the national debate on blackface set off by that particular dumpster fire, fashion brands like Gucci and Katy Perry’s line have had to pull products that featured bright red lips against a black backdrop.
To continue what just might be the worst Black History Month on record, the Pew Research Center just released the results of a survey on blackface at Halloween that happened to be conducted almost entirely before news broke of the Northam scandal. The survey reveals that, contrary to the popular belief that blackface persists as a relic of Southern regressivism, only a very slight majority of Americans (53 percent) think that “it is generally unacceptable for a white person to use makeup to darken their skin to appear to be a different race as part of a Halloween costume.”
Opinions are split generally along the lines you would expect: “White adults are about twice as likely as black adults to say the use of blackface as part of a Halloween costume can be acceptable: 39 percent of whites hold this view vs. 19 percent of blacks.” Younger white adults are far less accepting, with about a quarter saying its either sometimes or always acceptable for a white person to darken their skin and 41 percent saying it’s never acceptable. About 40 percent of whites who are 30 and older say that blackface is sometimes or always acceptable and 44 percent of white people without a bachelor’s degree think the same. And Republicans are far more likely to be just fine with blackface: Half of the people who identity as Republican think that blackface is sometimes acceptable, with a quarter considering it always acceptable as part of a Halloween costume. Meanwhile, 51 percent of those who lean Democratic think blackface is never acceptable.
For a black woman like myself, the political picture that the survey draws isn’t exactly surprising. It is however a bit more complicated than the blanket and inaccurate “secede from the South” takes that tend to emerge in the days after these sorts of scandals. As someone who went to a liberal Midwestern college that had some sort of blackface scandal about once every two years, I can assure you that the problem is not isolated to south of the Mason-Dixon Line, no matter what good coastal liberals want to believe. And despite the remarkably unsubtle nature of blackface, the relatively widespread approval of it as evidenced by the Pew Halloween survey results points to the subtle ways in which racism functions in America.
Make no mistake: There’s a good chunk of people who think blackface is fine who are avowed racists. The kind that “good” people point to and say, “Well I’m not that, so I’m not racist.” The kind who “hold racism in their hearts,” because somehow racism has become a game of judging people by their intentions and not their actions.
But there are also people who think blackface is sometimes acceptable, as either a costume or as fashion iconography, who probably have, you know, a black friend. They are the people who do not understand why “dressing up” as someone else is derogatory, most likely because they do not understand nor care to understand the history of blackface or what they are signaling by donning someone else’s identity as a mask for a night. They are the same people who cannot help but cluelessly ask if it’s OK for their white child to dress up as the Black Panther, signaling their own inability to distinguish between blackface and a fun Halloween costume.
For those people, let me spell it out: Lampooning blackness has a long and painful history in America that we are, rather obviously, not long past. The primary historical function of blackface has been to signal the wearer’s superiority over black people. But because of the way that we’re taught about the inevitable arc of the moral universe bending toward justice, there is a prevailing notion that we have overcome the racist roots of our country. Black people, under this paradigm, should stop complaining about a country that held them in bondage and second-class citizenship for majority of its history. All our actions now exist in an egalitarian vacuum, devoid of historical context. That vacuum produces Americans who think black people’s struggles are due to laziness rather than state-sanctioned plunder and who believe that they can don blackface without being racist. But if one can understand why they shouldn’t cover their living room in swastikas because of that symbol’s historical implications, then it stands to reason that they should understand why blackface is a no-go. When they decide to don blackface anyway, they are either signaling that they are ignorant of that history or they do not care, that they are accidentally or intentionally malicious.
There is no way around that, despite the tendency to chalk incidents like these up to youthful indiscretion—there are plenty of people who manage to go through their teens and 20s doing plenty of stupid things that aren’t violently racist. No matter what personal fuzzy feelings someone might hold in their heart about black people, the choice to wear blackface will always be a racist one. And the fact that only half of Americans seem to understand or care about that is a testament to just how deeply normalized racism remains.
Correction, Feb. 12, 2019: This post originally misstated Mark Herring’s title. He is attorney general, not deputy attorney general.