If you’ve never had the impulse to darken your face to mimic another race, blackface can seem archaic, part of a racist form of entertainment people engaged in long ago. Sadly, that’s pretty naive.
“Blackface, particularly in white sororities and fraternities, is as common as cheerleaders on a football field,” according to Lawrence Ross, author of “Blackballed: The Black and White Politics of Race on America’s Campuses.” Ross is talking about young people in this present moment. Not middle-aged or older people getting in trouble for decades-old racist acts. A Google search for college students and blackface will bring up plenty of contemporary examples, including the University of Oklahoma white sorority girl caught earlier this year on Snapchat in blackface saying what sounded like the n-word.
There is a strange yet enduring appeal to blackface and racist tropes among certain groups of white college students who presumably should know better. Blackface has dominated the headlines for the past several days. Ralph Northam, the Democratic governor of Virginia, is roiled by controversy for yearbook pictures of a person in blackface standing next to someone in Ku Klux Klan robes and hood. Mark Herring, the Democratic attorney general, also revealed he wore blackface at a college party in 1980. Last month, Michael Ertel, the Republican secretary of state in Florida, resigned after photos surfaced showing him in blackface dressed as a “Hurricane Katrina victim” at a party. But these incidents are hardly an aberration or spectacles from the past.
“Eighteen- to 21-year-olds reflect the racism in which they grow up,” Ross said. It’s ridiculous to think that colleges and universities are some sort of utopia, free from the prejudices of the past. Students who grow up in predominantly white neighborhoods, attend predominantly white schools and become members of predominantly white organizations can end up insulated from how certain actions impact others, particularly people of color.
“You feel like you are safe to do these things,” Ross said of those in a “whiteness cohort.” In his research, he discovered racist photos in college yearbooks everywhere. In one particular instance, the university refused to let him use a yearbook image in his book because the former student involved is a big donor. Among the recent examples, he cites Paige Shoemaker, a white former student at Kansas State University, who wore a dark clay facial mask, took a picture and captioned it “feels good to finally be a (racial slur)” before sharing it on social media. In her subsequent apology she said, “I am the furthest thing from racist.”
That’s a refrain that comes up frequently when white people apologize for racist statements and behaviors. There is a type of cognitive dissonance in which people believe themselves to be good and moral persons and also believe that people who participate in racist acts are only those who are morally bad. But it’s possible for people to say and do racist things even if they don’t harbor a hatred for people of color.
Another frequent rationalization is that the stunt was simply done in fun with a lack of awareness of how offensive it is. But the accompanying commentary (usually in the photo captions) and context of when blackface is used on college campuses shows that the wearer is displaying some level of contempt, degrading or mocking black people.
“You can feign ignorance and offer rationalizations if you believe you don’t need to be subject to understanding racism,” Ross said. People don’t like to look at racism as being baked into our society and institutions. “They look at it as an individual issue.”
And even in blackface, that individual is never part of the problem. Ross said that in his research of 700 colleges and universities over roughly 70 years, he wasn’t able to find a single instance of black students wearing whiteface to denigrate white people on St. Patrick’s Day.
Blackface says: These people are mockable. I can mock these people because I am in a position of power.
As recently as last fall, NBC host Megyn Kelly said on national TV that she didn’t see anything wrong with blackface as part of Halloween costumes. She later apologized. As far as consequences go, she walked away from her show with $30 million, the remainder of her $69 million contract.