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Reggie Jackson: Why the bully in Blackface never really has to apologize

Making a conscious decision to sit down and put shoe polish on your face is a form of bullying. To appear in public or in a picture in blackface and pretending you did not know it is offensive is a form of bullying. Acting as if the 1980s was a time where people did not understand that appearing in blackface was offensive to black people is a form of bullying.

I am tired of these bullies never having to really apologize.

It seems we cannot escape being exposed to the enduring usage of blackface by white people across the country. The issue has been discussed and debated in recent weeks because the current governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam, allegedly appeared in an image from his medical school yearbook – in either blackface or a Ku Klux Klan outfit. Also on the same page in his yearbook were pictures of Northam and other information about him.

Journalists from around the country have written articles explaining why blackface is offensive. Stop it. Let’s be honest for a change. Anyone who intentionally blackens their face is doing it to offend black people. They are mocking the skin that blacks are born with. They are saying it is ugly and disgusting and appears “funny” in their view.

As people of color, we cannot wipe off our pigmentation and go about our lives like these bullies in blackface. When they wear it, they do not risk being seen as dangerous. They are not in fear of their lives because of the blackface. The police will not be called on them because of the blackface they smear over their alabaster skin. The police will not shoot them because they fear for their lives over the blackface those people wear.

To you bullies, blackface is an escape into a world you claim to despise but secretly admire.

Some people find it amusing to pretend to be black. The stereotypes of black people, that are an enduring legacy of four hundred years of being something other than Americans, is what drives those bullies to put on blackface. They can offend, hurt, beat, maim, rape, torture, and kill with impunity the people you see fit to pretend to be in your blackface without ever having to face that fear for themselves.

You bullies mock us and then dance to the music that we make.

Those bullies demean people of color and then get collagen injected into their lips to make them “fuller” like the lips they say look so ugly on us. These bullies also feel free to steal the black culture’s “swag” and make millions off of our creations. All the while they belittle us by saying we are ugly, but then you copy us.

Blackface is about a lot more than a white person putting on shoe polish. If people think it ends with some so-called apology, they are wrong.

I am appalled at all of the black people who are now saying that Ralph Northam made a mistake and needs to be forgiven. He admitted darkening his face to pretend being Michael Jackson. This was not a mistake. If a person turns left when the intention was to turn right, that is a mistake. If someone grabs the sugar and ends up sprinkling salt instead, that is a mistake. Putting on blackface is not a mistake. It is done with intention. It is done with all of the ugly history that is attached to a legacy of disparaging and devaluing black people.

I do not forgive him or anyone else who puts on blackface. Why does the victim of the bully have to make the bully feel okay about the trauma inflicted? Why do I have to tell you “it’s okay, don’t worry about it, I accept your apology.”

Who has ever been beaten by a bully in their lives and found a time where the bully apologized and then said, “we’re good, don’t sweat it, I understand you made a mistake, it’s okay.”

On February 14, Nicolet High School star basketball player Jalen Johnson was heckled by white students from Port Washington High School. These youth used an image of Johnson showing him with a charcoal skin mask while shooting free-throws, in front of the student section during a basketball game.

Nearly the entire student section stood up and held the image while jeering Johnson. I counted somewhere between fifty to sixty white students holding up the image in one of the photos posted on social media. Most of them had big smiles on their faces. And there is no information on how many times the students repeated their actions. I saw no adults intervene to stop this grotesque display. The officials at the game apparently did nothing to stop it.

The Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association has rules in place meant to discourage student sections from chanting “airball” and other negative cheers, but somehow this behavior is okay.

Nicolet superintendent Dr. Robert Kobylski said, “I cannot speak to the motivation or intent the Port Washington students had in displaying this photo, whether a harmless skin-care prank or a more deeply troubling, racially motivated scenario.”

To not know what their intent was and leave open the possibility it was a “harmless skin-care prank” is an absolute joke.

“The parent who printed the images said he understands why some were offended by the images and blamed social media for taking them out of context.” – according to a report by WISN

Who does the parent think was offended? Why not be honest and say instead, “I understand why black people were offended.”

I hear this so often, when individuals apologize to the people they offend without acknowledging exactly who they offended. Directing the apology at specific people is how to offer a real apology.

We wonder why youth exhibit racist behaviors at school. This is a simple example of how bad parental guidance sets the example. This father has now caused his son to be suspended for distributing the images of Johnson to other students, and triggered an investigation by the district.

Port Washington High School Principal Eric Burke issued a statement saying, “Even if nothing bad was intended, the conduct sends a bad message, intended or not.”

Something bad was intended. The commonality of it illustrates how acceptable and self-reinforcing racist behavior remains.

Jalen Johnson issued a one-word response on Twitter: “Unacceptable.”

“A Port Washington parent who doesn’t want to be identified said he was at the game and doesn’t believe that was their intent. It’s strictly 100-percent to get a dominant athlete, get in his head a little bit and try to give us a little bit of an advantage.” – according to a report by WTMJ4

What advantage was trying to be gained? And, using racist imagery is a tool to win at a high school basketball game now? It is an admission of bad intentions. I have spent the past seventeen years of my life raising awareness of how this is exactly the textbook definition of racist behavior displayed toward black people. My work seems to be never ending.

What exhausts me more than anything else, are the excuses people make for obviously racists acts such as this. They dishonor themselves and their community by not being honest. Racism is not a thing of the past, daily headlines and social media feeds prove that.

White people cannot pretend they are victims of racism in the same way people of color are. It is blatantly disrespectful to say these things. It is not possible to come close to understanding the pain that comes from being marked with a “Scarlett Letter” that blacks are born with and cannot escape. Many years ago white academics told us that our black skin was a form of leprosy. Our dark skin does not wash off with soap and water.

For far too long American society has lived in a fantasy world, where we have been taught to believe we exist in a colorblind nation. Nothing could be further from the truth. The use of blackface has a very long and vulgar history. It has always been used as a tool to degrade and humiliate black people, going back nearly two hundred years.

The statements by school district leaders and parents show me that these people have learned nothing from the fiasco in Virginia. Not only was the Governor caught up in the controversy but also the state’s Attorney General, Mark Herring admitted he had used blackface too. Governor Northam later admitted he used shoe polish to darken his face for a Michael Jackson dance contest.

Northam first apologized for the image. He then claimed he was not in the image wearing blackface or the Ku Klux Klan uniform, but could not give a logical answer for why he said he was at first. Why is there so much outrage over the blackface costume and next to nothing about the Ku Klux Klan uniform? Why are people upset that a man who became a surgeon and eventually governor are more upset about the blackface than the KKK’s white supremacy outfit?

Virginia’s long and ugly history of treating blacks badly plays a role in the public reactions. Is our society comfortable with the governor possibly wearing a Ku Klux Klan uniform? Obviously, the blackface is extremely offensive. But the Ku Klux Klan uniform is way more offensive to me. If Ralph Northam is not in the image, then why would he initially suggest that he was?

Northam even referred to the first blacks that arrived on a slaving ship in 1619 as “indentured servants,” which is very troubling as well. The elected governor of a state that purchased black people tried to whitewash its ugly history by referring to these African people as something other than what they were.

It is not an accident to call enslaved people indentured servants. Indentured servants came over on indentured servant ships from Europe. These ships did not make a pit stop in Africa to pick up some black people along the way. The Africans arrived on ships that were dedicated to selling Africans into slavery. Just because Virginia had not recognized slavery with a law in 1619 does not change the fact that the ships they arrived on were not a slaving vessels.

Virginia is the place where the first kidnapped Africans arrived onboard a slaving ship in 1619. It is also the state that passed a law in 1806 banishing emancipated blacks from the state. Those blacks who were free could not live in Virginia any longer. The message was loud and clear. Virginians only wanted enslaved blacks in their midst.

A strong backlash to the 1954 Brown v. Board Supreme Court ruling, which outlawed segregated schools, took place in Virginia. The state passed a law making public school attendance optional. On February 25, 1956, a policy began in the state that was called Massive Resistance. Virginia passed a group of laws intended to prevent integration of the schools.

According to the Virginia Museum of History and Culture, Prince George County:

“Ordered on May 1, 1959, to integrate its schools, the county instead closed its entire public school system. Prince Edward Foundation created a series of private schools to educate the county’s white children. These schools were supported by tuition grants from the state and tax credits from the county. Prince Edward Academy became the prototype for all-white private schools formed to protest school integration. No provision was made for educating the county’s black children.”

The schools remained closed for five years. Many other counties had previously closed their schools to prevent integration. These private academies became the norm for white parents who wanted a place free of black children to send their children.

The consequences of these schools can be seen in cities around the country. White people are about thirty-eight percent of the residents of the City of Milwaukee, but white children are only thirteen percent of the student body in Milwaukee Public schools as a result of this legacy of not abiding by the Brown decision.

I gave a keynote address on Martin Luther King Jr. Day at Waukesha County Technical College. During the presentation I showed a short film clip of famous American actors who had used blackface make-up to poke fun and stereotype black people. The list included Ronald Reagan, Shirley Temple, Bing Crosby, Milton Bearle, Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, and Al Jolson among many others. I also showed images of white college students wearing blackface at Halloween parties and MLK Day parties in recent years. It is pretty much guaranteed to see some white person using blackface every Halloween.

I was recently in Austin, Texas speaking to a group about unconscious bias and how it leads to conscious bias. I showed images of the same white college students in blackface and promised them that within a month there would be another blackface incident. Less than a week later we had the incident involving the Port Washington students, which has since trended in the national news.

I also showed them a 1993 image of actor Ted Danson of the famous TV show “Cheers” in blackface. Over 40 million viewers watched the final episode of the show earlier that year. Danson appeared in blackface at a Friars Club roast of actress Whoopi Goldberg, who was his girlfriend at the time. He had a wide white stripe encircling his mouth and used the word nigger multiple times during his “performance.” He finished by eating watermelon. Goldberg defended Danson after his routine.

“It takes a lot of courage to come out in blackface in front of 3,000. I don’t care if you don’t like it. I do!”

To this day I still have no respect for Whoopi Goldberg. The club initially issued an apology the following day for Danson’s routine, to anyone “discomforted and offended by the racial remarks.” Once again, an apology that refused to directly address the people who were offended. Two days later they retracted the apology stating, “We feel that the attention drawn to this recent private roast because of the strong reaction by people who apparently did not anticipate or understand our format was totally undeserved.”

The host of the Comedy Central Show “Politically Incorrect,” Bill Maher, also defended Danson by saying, “The whole point of a Friars roast is to be over the line, to be distasteful. “If [Goldberg] enjoyed it, that’s all that mattered. If she wanted to see her boyfriend in blackface, that’s all that mattered.” Maher has a history of these types of remarks. In 2017 he referred to himself as a “house nigger” in an interview with Congressman Ben Sasse. During an HBO interview with black Texas Congressman Will Hurd, who was describing his work collecting intelligence on threats to the homeland while working with the CIA Maher said, “That’s where you’d collect it, huh? By the Popeyes chicken?”

The use of blackface goes back to the days of minstrel shows, which began in the Northeast in the 1830s. White actors “blackened up” to perform as black people, mocking the way blacks looked, spoke, danced, and acted. “These performances characterized blacks as lazy, ignorant, superstitious, hypersexual, and prone to thievery and cowardice.” according to the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The white actors spoke in so-called black dialect and sang plantation songs. The shows were immensely popular. Blacks were depicted as happy, contented slaves in these shows. Frederic Douglass denounced blackface actors describing them as:

“…the filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied them by nature, in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow citizens.”

Black characters provided comic relief to white audiences who believed strongly in the stereotypical portrayals of blacks. The despicable “Sambo” caricature of black men was made famous by minstrel shows. Thomas Dartmouth Rice performed the famous, “Jump Jim Crow” minstrel act in the early 1830s. This negative depiction of blacks is where the name of widespread segregation policies, practices, and laws called Jim Crow comes from.

Eric Lott’s 1993 book, “Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class,” talked about comic songs used in minstrel shows in which blacks were “roasted, fished for, smoked like tobacco, peeled like potatoes, planted in the soil, or dried up and hung as advertisements.” He also said that “there were multiple songs in which a black man accidentally put out a black woman’s eyes.”

After the Civil War, the shows left their Northeastern roots and began to travel in the South and Midwest primarily. P.T. Barnum, of Barnum & Bailey Circus show fame, produced many blackface minstrel shows. He even performed in blackface himself. Many famous actors and actresses performed in blackface. Desi Arnez, Dan Aykroyd, Jimmy Cagney, Joan Crawford, Billy Crystal, Robert Downey Jr., Bob Hope, Sophia Loren, Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers, Frank Sinatra, Sir Laurence Olivier, Will Rogers, John Wayne, Gene Wilder, the Three Stooges, and even Bugs Bunny have all performed in blackface on television and in movies. None of them has felt compelled to apologize.

Minstrel shows died off many years ago but the blackface images and mocking characters live on as iconic figures in American film. They have an enduring legacy that is strongly embedded in the psyche of white America. Many are shocked when these images of whites in blackface show up. I am not. I suspect that we will continue to see more and more of these incidents and images because people continue to defend blackface as not being offensive.

The victims of these racist depictions are the ones who should be the judge of what is offensive. We do not need white people telling blacks what we should and should not be offended by. We also do not need to hear people claim that they do not know it is offensive. Nor should we continue to forgive and forget these things and tell white people who get caught that it was ever acceptable. It never has been and never should be acceptable.

When white high school students in Port Washington know enough about this ugly usage of blackface to demean a black basketball player, they know very well what they are doing. Just like the students in Baraboo, who posed with a Nazi salute. We need be aware that Wisconsin is in many ways just as racist as southern states like Mississippi and Alabama. Racism knows know geographical boundaries. The terms North and South mean nothing to racists. Whites in Wisconsin ride around with Confederate flags on their cars too. The Ku Klux Klan was very active in Milwaukee and other parts of Wisconsin in the 1920s.

White Supremacists groups are still active throughout Wisconsin. The Southern Poverty Law Center says at least nine white supremacist groups have ties to Wisconsin. A group called the “Proud Boys,” with a Wisconsin chapter, met as recently as July 2017 in Wauwatosa, according to WISN.

The places where blackface is condoned and expressed by whites are the places where white supremacists recruit. We should be much more upset to see these consistent displays of racism than we are. For a nation that claims to be colorblind, white folk have shown the black community time and time again that they definitely see color.

Ronald Reagan did not apologize, Ted Danson did not apologize, Shirley Temple did not apologize, none of these racial bullies mentioned ever apologized. They did not apologize because they never really had to. Ralph Northam has not resigned as governor of Virginia. America has given these racial bullies a pass. America continues to give these passes.

As Childish Gambino said so insightfully in his song, “This is America.”

2019: Local sporting event. 1940: Local church-based social group performance.

© Photo

Florence Kate Upton, Retro Boomin via Twitter, and a private historical photo collection

About The Author

Reggie Jackson

As an award-winning Senior Columnist for the Milwaukee Independent, Reggie Jackson covers a range of African American issues. He is also a Consultant with Nurturing Diversity Partners, and volunteers as Head Griot for America’s Black Holocaust Museum (ABHM) in Bronzeville.