As you know, both Virginia’s Governor, ralph northam and Attorney General, Mark Herring, are accused of putting on blackface for one reason or another a good many years ago. Because of this, there is enormous pressure for both to resign.
But doesn’t the context of their use of blackface count for something?
To illustrate: I am Jewish. And if you call me a kike you’d better get ready to defend yourself. But if you tell me that you think people who use the term kike are hate-filled morons, I will agree with you.
In both cases you will have used the word kike. But my reaction is determined by the context in which it was used.
In ralph northam’s 1984 yearbook, his page has a picture of two young men, presumably students having a beer together. One, smiling broadly, is in blackface and the other, masked, is in a ku klux klan outfit. Was this done to mock or stereotype Black people? Or was the idea to ridicule the ku klux klan by showing a klansman and Black man standing as equals, having a beer together and enjoying each other’s company?
I don’t know the answer to that. Neither do you and neither does anyone but the people in the picture.
Was the idea in bad taste? Absolutely yes, regardless of whether ralph northam was or was not in the picture. But was the context – their intent – racist? We don’t know.
Regarding Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring: in 1980, when he was 19 years old, Herring and his friends went to a college party as “rappers”, who, he says, they liked listening to at that time. He put on blackface, presumably because the “rappers” were Black and it made him look more like one of them.
Did he do so to mock or stereotype Black people? Or for no other reason than that a Black face would look more like a “rapper” than a White face? We don’t know.
My point here is not to defend either northam or Herring. And it certainly is not to defend the use of blackface – which I have always found offensive.
It is to point out that when Herring, and maybe northam, did so all those years ago, their reasons at that time might not have been racist.
They deserve at least that much consideration.