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‘White privilege’ in America: The blissful ignorance of Ralph Northam

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12.02.2019

Seeing the picture on the medical school yearbook page of now-Gov. Ralph Northam (D) was a gut punch. A man in blackface standing next to someone else dressed as a member of the Ku Klux Klan. That same 1984 keepsake from Eastern Virginia Medical School also featured students in other racist and offensive images. Three years earlier, under his otherwise stately photograph in the 1981 yearbook of the Virginia Military Institute, Northam listed one of his nicknames as “Coonman,” a racial slur that evokes the worst caricature of African American men. One wonders if this was a sanitized version of a harsher moniker for someone having black friends.

When the stunning Northam story broke, countless political observers commented that Northam’s 2017 Republican challenger Ed Gillespie should get his money back from his opposition research team. How could they miss something so incendiary, so blatantly racist? How could they resist making something public something that would brand a hypocrite the Democrat roasting Gillespie’s rather Trumpian white nationalist campaign? For that matter, how could Northam and his own team not see this coming?

[Northam’s ugly yearbook photo and the racist origins of blackface]

Perhaps they didn’t see it because they saw nothing wrong with it. They couldn’t because they were steeped in a deeply entrenched culture that demeaned, demoralized and dismissed African Americans. Northam said as much when he admitted to CBS’s Gayle King that the controversy opened his eyes to “the way a white person such as myself is treated in this country” and that he “didn’t realize really the powerful implications of that.” This comment exemplifies the attitude that allowed such a halting photograph like that on Northam’s 1984 medical yearbook page (or the other blackface and offensive photos) to be submitted without apology, printed without complaint.

Each character depicted is a moral affront to decency and our national ideals of freedom and equal justice under law. They are symbols of a system of oppression that far too many white Americans (like Northam, until this month) are content to ignore. Who can blame them given how bloody that system and its history are? But that ignorance has created a culture of complicity that continues to hobble our nation today.

The man in blackface

As The Post reported in a story on the history of blackface, the racist practice was part of minstrel shows that started in the 1800s and used white actors with shoe-polish-blackened faces to exaggerate every aspect of black life. Blues musician Daryl Davis told The Post that the shows were meant “to depict false stereotypes of black people: the big lips, the lack of education, the poor clothing. ... It wasn’t about trying to look black, but trying to look black in a way that portrays blacks negatively.”

Such portrayals did something else. They cemented a universal inferior status for African Americans.

“Minstrelsy, comedic performances of ‘blackness’ by whites in exaggerated costumes and make-up, cannot be separated fully from the racial derision and stereotyping at its core,” notes a history of blackface on the website of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. “By distorting the features and culture of African Americans — including their looks, language, dance, deportment, and character — white Americans were able to codify whiteness [italics theirs] across class and geopolitical lines as its antithesis.” And as cultural historian Rhae Lynn Barnes writes in an eye-opening essay........

© Washington Post