, ,

I’ve enjoyed Slate’s Political Gabfest for a number of years, but found that I couldn’t listen after our current President was elected in November 2016. Everything had changed for me, and I feared that nothing would change for the hosts of the show. I enjoy listening to smart perspectives that differ from my own, but I feared that they would be likely to dismiss the unusual nature of our current political status quo. I still subscribe to the podcast and check in every once in a while, but it’s no longer my go-to political analysis podcast (I rely far more heavily on the NYT Daily podcast and Vox’s weekly Weeds podcast for that).

I listened to last week’s podcast over the weekend and was both fascinated and disappointed by what I heard.

The first segment of the show focused on the controversy surrounding top officials in Virginia’s state government, specifically the concerns around the governor and the attorney general’s admissions that they (separately) dressed in black face in the early 1980’s. Governor Frank Northam acknowledged wearing blackface while wearing a Michael Jackson costume during his time in medical school and AG Mark Herring admitted to dressing in blackface while impersonating Golden Age rapper Kurtis Blow when he was an undergrad. This came to public attention when some photos from Gov. Northam’s page in his med school yearbook featuring a person dressed in a KKK hood and an individual dressed in blackface were released (as part of an investigation by a conservative outlet). Gov. Northam appeared to admit that he was one of the individuals in the photo, only to retract that admission and admit that he wore blackface in a different context for a party.

The panelists (the New York Times’ Emily Bazelon, CBS’ John Dickerson and Atlas Obscura’s David Plotz) talked about the impact that the controversy could have on the two officials involved and marveled at the mistakes made by both politicians. The conversation was similar to the ones you probably heard in any number of forums. There was the requisite condemnation and disgust, but that was followed by a conversation that reminded me that many people have trouble appreciating the impact of racism that’s not driven by animus.

The three hosts agree that dressing in blackface is inappropriate, but there is some debate about the distinctions that can be drawn between the yearbook image and the examples shared by the Governor and Attorney General for the Commonwealth of Virginia. Plotz describes the former as vile and grotesque and the latter are characterized as stupid and boorish, the actions of ‘stupid frat boys’. 

The suggestion is that one is mean-spirited and the other is… not. Maybe an ill-considered celebration of the impersonated artists. “An attempt to honor a cultural figure who you admire.” A comparison is made to (non-Chinese) people who wear traditional Chinese dresses to honor Chinese women.

I can imagine why a Chinese person might be annoyed by a non-Chinese person wearing a traditional garment. I would imagine that they would be even more annoyed if that person applied makeup to make themselves look like a 19th century caricature of a Chinese person.

Neither Michael Jackson or Kurtis Blow have ever had skin tones that one would naturally compare to black shoe polish. “Black” people come in many shades of brown, but none of us are literally black.

The discussion is dominated by Plotz and Dickerson (though Bazelon does condemn the behavior in all contexts). The two men employ the phrases used by self-styled rational/reasonable men – ‘nuance’, ‘context’, ‘continuum’ to unpack the differences between the three situations.

Context is important and I appreciate the value of nuance, but I worry when those words are used as rhetorical shields instead of tools that help us understand a situation and craft a remedy.

Context can prompt us to consider the fact that the two men (from Virginia) chose to use blackface to impersonate musicians and can remind us to contemplate the legacy of blackface minstrelsy.

Nuance can help us think and discuss the subtle power of racism that can accommodate both virulent hatred and condescending affection disguised as love.

We can use models and the concept of a continuum to help unpack different kinds of racism (and identify strategies for undoing racism) without assuming that one’s place on the continuum is perfectly aligned with the seriousness of the behavior.

It’s important to consider the emotions that motivate racist behavior when developing strategies to address racism at different levels, but we should remember that hate and loathing are not essential components of racism, particularly in the United States. We have a long history of racist policies (and practices) created and enforced by people who had no trouble reconciling their affection for black people with a steadfast belief that we were inferior and less human. Scarlett loved Mammy, but never considered her a full person. Racism isn’t always grounded in hatred, it can simply be a failure to recognize that others are full human beings.


The performance of blackface as an explicit reference to a history of racial oppression (by combining it with a person wearing a KKK costume) is different from a performance of blackface to ‘honor’ black artists, but both are tied to a long history of using makeup to dehumanize and shape prejudices of black people in this country. They are harmful in different ways, but both are pretty damn harmful.