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‘It’s a sickness’: How our culture recognizes blackface is racist — but won’t stop doing it

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s page in his 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook. The page shows a photo, at right, of a person in blackface and another wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood. Northam, a Democrat, has denied that he is in the photo. (Eastern Virginia Medical School/AP)

“We like to think that every generation for some reason is less racist. But white supremacy is like a cancer, and the racist blackface is like the tumor that pops up,” said Lawrence Ross, the author of “Blackballed: The Black and White Politics of Race on America’s Campuses,” in an interview Wednesday.

For those just tuning in, the culture is again reckoning with the idea that blackface is wrong: Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) announced Wednesday that he’d dressed as rapper Kurtis Blow at a party in 1980, darkening his face with brown makeup and donning a wig as a 19-year-old student at the University of Virginia. Meanwhile, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) denies he appeared in a photo on his 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook page showing a student in blackface next to another partygoer in a Klansman’s white hood and robe. But he acknowledged that he had once rubbed his skin with dark shoe polish to look like Michael Jackson.

Herring blamed “ignorance and glib attitudes,” for his mistake. But this controversy points to a culture that has long recognized the insidious racism in blackface — and won’t stop using it.

“I don’t care when you did it. It was never cool,” said director Spike Lee in an interview Wednesday. “It’s a sickness.”

A clip about the history of blackface from Lee’s 2000 film “Bamboozled” was shared widely on social media in the wake of the latest revelations.

“If you revisit that montage at the end of ‘Bamboozled,’ it was frightening to me because, to see Judy Garland in blackface, Mickey Rooney, Bugs Bunny? This thing isn’t — this infatuation with blackface is not new. It’s not new,” Lee said of the practice, which dates to the 19th century.

Remember actor Ted Danson, performing at a Friars Club roast of his then-girlfriend Whoopi Goldberg with his face darkened, deploying the n-word more than a dozen times? Talk show host Montel Williams, who was in the audience, was so offended that he later compared the whole affair to “a meeting of the Klan.” That was 1993.

Black students protested the release of “Soul Man” — the film that depicted a white man who takes “tanning pills” to turn his skin brown to get a college scholarship for African Americans. That was 1986. But in a 2013 interview with the A.V. Club, star C. Thomas Howell continued to defend the role. “I still don’t understand, and I guess this is just my own ignorance, the fact that certain people really hate the whole blackface idea, because this isn’t a movie about blackface.”

In 1969, organizers of the University of Vermont’s Kake Walk ended the more than 75-year-old practice of students parading through the streets in blackface and curly wigs while dancing over-the-top jigs because, as they lamented, “In these sensitive times it is possible to interpret this tradition as being racist in nature, and humiliating to the Black people of this nation.”

Even in recent years, on college campuses, which are supposed hotbeds of intellectualism and political correctness, incidents of blackface have continued to pop up, circulated via social media: At the University of California at Los Angeles in 2015, students alleged that attendees of a fraternity-sorority “Kanye Western”-theme party rubbed charcoal on their faces and stuffed their pants to enhance their derrieres. A University of Central Arkansas fraternity brother in 2016 posed for a photo dressed as Bill Cosby for Halloween, with blackened skin. And less than a year ago, a University of Michigan student posted a Snapchat while wearing a black-hued beauty mask, tagging it #blacklivesmatter.

“Every year there’s some frat house,” Lee said. “I’ve been saying this since 1988: Wake up!”

In 2001, two decades after Herring dressed like the rapper Blow at a U-Va. party, Nancy Mendoza moved to the same university for architecture school. In the first month, she said, she opened an email inviting her to a fraternity party and saw a photo of white men in black makeup.

“It was just these guys in blackface inviting us to come,” she said. “I remember being horrified and bringing it up to classmates. They thought it was funny, or some people rolled their eyes. They didn’t act like it was a horrifying event. It was like, ‘Yeah, this is the South.’ ”

Mendoza, now 46, realized the invitation was nothing exceptional for the campus culture. “The undergrads and graduates there just had a real casual racism,” she said. “I wanted to be happy and live in a place that treated people more equally.” So she transferred to another school after her first year, in 2002.

Later that year, photos of U-Va. fraternity brothers dressed as Venus and Serena Williams were made public, triggering a national scandal.

In letters to the student newspaper, some defended the blackface as innocent fun.