Advertisement

Half of Virginia seems to have confessed to wearing blackface. What’s the right penance?

Half of Virginia seems to have confessed to wearing blackface. What’s the right penance?
Ralph Northam’s page in the 1984 yearbook of Eastern Virginia Medical School. (Obtained by the Washington Post)

On Wednesday, Virginia Atty. Gen. Mark Herring revealed that he too had appeared in blackface when he was a feckless 19-year-old at the University of Virginia. That came after Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s tortuous confession Saturday that he had dabbed on blackface to play Michael Jackson in a dance contest. And Liam Neeson’s admission, in an interview published Monday to promote his new movie, that he had wandered the streets seeking a black man — any black man — to beat up in order to avenge a friend’s rape at the hands of another black man.

All this in less than a week. The succession of middle-aged white men confessing publicly to incidents of racist behavior feels like a sort of national mass revival meeting (or maybe group therapy session) where folks jump to their feet and bare their troubled souls.

Advertisement

And maybe that’s good. It’s remarkable to see well-known people who are usually very good at crafting fake public faces suddenly acknowledging their racism, and appearing to be honest and remorseful about their own misbehavior. All swear their actions have been packed up and stowed away in their pasts.

Of course, for the politicians at least, those past deeds were probably not buried so deeply that an enterprising reporter or blogger couldn’t dig them up. Just days ago, Herring — who has said he hopes to run for governor of Virginia in 2021 — joined the chorus of people calling for Northam to resign over the blackface incident. It seems likely that his confession was designed as a hedge against some reporter outing him first.

Still, some kind of public reckoning is going on here. And that’s a good thing. Because this kind of behavior is still going on.

A photo of a Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity member at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in blackface surfaced on social media last April just days after it was taken. A video of a smiling young white woman — a student at the University of Oklahoma — with black paint smeared on her face and hands at University of Oklahoma was posted on social media just last month. She was expelled.

Are these rare occurrences? I hope so, but I fear not.

So what should all the people confessing to racist behavior in their lives do after they’ve confessed? Confession alone doesn’t absolve you of your sins. I suggested in a recent blogpost that Liam Neeson continue a public conversation about what he had admitted to doing. And he has, to a certain extent. He talked openly about what happened in interviews on two national TV talk shows. (However, the entire red carpet event for the premiere of his movie, “Cold Pursuit,” was suddenly canceled.) I think he should keep talking.

The people who have confessed to this hideousness should not be allowed to issue their apologies (however well-meant) and simply resume their public lives as if nothing happened. They should go on talking about these issues, addressing them publicly, wrestling with them publicly and helping guide everyone else to a better understanding of why blackface is racism — or why (although it seems pretty obvious) running after any black man to avenge a crime by a specific black man is racism. Maybe that means doing town halls, speaking about public forums and keeping the conversation alive.

And there’s another responsibility for Northam and Herring. I hope they taught their children (all of whom are young adults) that dressing up in blackface is not a harmless lark, but revolting racist behavior. Hopefully, we will never see any yearbook pictures of their kids in blackface.

Advertisement
Advertisement