The complexity of blackface

Dr. Bill Roper, left, interim UNC System president, speaks to the press on Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019 about a racist image discovered in a 1979 UNC-Chapel Hill yearbook on Wednesday evening.
Dr. Bill Roper, left, interim UNC System president, speaks to the press on Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019 about a racist image discovered in a 1979 UNC-Chapel Hill yearbook on Wednesday evening. jwall@newsobserver.com

I asked an African-American friend, “what do you think about the blackface controversy” roiling Virginia and the UNC campus?

He immediately sent me a photo of a lynching and the words, “this is something for fun and jokes?”

In that instant, he underscored how we — the mainstream media and mainstream society — have worked to diminish and contain the discussion around the racist yearbook pictures by focusing on the less disgusting part of those photos: on the grinning figures in blackface rather than the menacing Klansmen.

The images of white people in blackface that have received almost all the attention are disturbing but also ambiguous. It’s almost impossible to tell whether these were acts of racial cruelty intended to mock blacks, or just the grossly insensitive behavior of young white men and women who thought they were being funny.

As my friend observed, no such argument can be made for the people dressed in Klan robes on Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook page and the 1979 UNC yearbook, which also includes a rope around the neck of a white person in blackface.

Their hateful meaning, the murderous violence they celebrate, is unequivocal. They are a direct attack on the humanity of black people. They are no different than photos of people dressed as Nazi soldiers pretending to send a Jew to the gas chamber.

And yet, they are being all but ignored. What are we to make of that?

It is comforting — and accurate on many levels — to say that because these photos are decades-old, they are artifacts, like the lynching photo my friend sent, of a repudiated past.

We know that racial politics and racial realities in the South, and much of America, were very different four decades ago. North Carolina, for example, only began to desegregate its public schools in the late 1960s. The college students in those disturbing pictures grew up in a starkly racist society. The vast majority of people are not courageous creatures of conscience, they are followers who embrace the norms and customs they are taught.

So no one should be shocked to find racism in a racist land.

I attended one of the most famously liberal schools in the country, Wesleyan University. In the early 1980s, during a home football game against our rival Amherst, someone hung a sheet from their dorm room window overlooking the field with a homophobic slur. Many people laughed; no one was disciplined.

That, of course, would never happen today, just as no yearbook would run racist photos. This does not mean that we have stamped out racism and tribalism, cruelty and selfishness. But we have made such tremendous strides that it unfair to say that those artifacts reflect our world.

Clearly some of the gaps we see today between blacks and whites in wealth, health, education and criminal justice are connected to the legacy of racism. Less certain is how much of a role they play today and whether a focus on our racist past will help us develop effective strategies for addressing those disparities.

I wish I had a better answer than to say it is all terribly complicated. I believe we have acknowledged our past — held courageous conversations — and tried to make amends.

I also know that many of my fellow Americans hold different views. A happy result of the social media revolution is the democratization of information that allows us to hear far more perspectives.

But, even as this has brought us closer to the truth, it has shown us how complex the truth can be. Instead of a single answer, it is an Escher print: where one person sees blackface, another person sees a lynching.

Contributing columnist J. Peder Zane can be reached at jpederzane@jpederzane.com.