America: We need to talk. Remember when Barack Obama was elected president, and we were debating whether we had reached a post-racial society? That’s not working out so well.
In the last week or so, the Governor of Virginia, whose pride in being able to moonwalk seems to override his sense of propriety at every turn, revealed that he wore blackface at a party as part of a Michael Jackson costume (he also seemed confused as to whether this was his only instance of wearing blackface, and if this one even counted because he only wore “a little bit of shoe polish on his face”; as I’ve said before, yes, Governor Northam, that still counts). Then the Attorney General of Virginia revealed that he also wore blackface at what I assume was a different college party. Virginia, I’m really disappointed in you and thought bett…[looks at all of Virginia’s history]…ok,, I’m not actually surprised, but I am still disappointed. What do you think this is, Florida? (I almost forgot about that one.)
The revelations of racism and bias haven’t just come from the Deep South, or from politics. Actor Liam Neeson, who became American ten years ago and who’s made a career exacting various forms of revenge in American movies, revealed that he attempted to get real revenge after a friend of his was raped by a “black bastard” by going out seeking an excuse to kill a random black guy in retaliation (fortunately, he was unsuccessful). While the desire to avenge a horrible wrong against a friend is understandable,when targeted against the person who committed the crime, targeting anyone of that person’s race is very clearly racist (which is something that we somehow need to explicitly point out). And let’s not forget the revival of the “Martin Luther ‘coon’” slur last month.
Ok, there is silver lining in all this: it’s good that we’re having conversations about racism and prejudice. Many, many studies have revealed how basically all people from all walks of life have biases; they’re our brain’s way of shortcutting through the overload of information we have to deal with, but they also cause some very bad consequences when targeted, purposefully or subconsciously, toward specific groups of people. Biases can be overcome (although that process might be more difficult than we’ve thought), but only if they’re acknowledged. And since nearly everyone believes they are less biased than average (and simple math tells us that cannot be the case), having some people willing to fess up to their own racist actions is an important first step.
Dark cloud surrounding that silver lining: the acknowledging part needs to come with recognition that these beliefs and ideas are bad, and a big deal, and that changing them should be a priority. And Governor Northam’s “just a little bit of shoe polish” or Neeson’s backtracking that he would have felt the same way about an “Irish, Scottish or Lithuanian man” don’t exactly inspire confidence that they’re really reflecting on the gravity of the racism and prejudice behind their actions, much less actively working through it beyond their interviews and press conferences.
President Obama (yes, we all miss him. Well, I guess some folks don’t) once got some pushback for saying that racism hadn’t disappeared as a problem just because (excuse the language) it was no longer “polite to say nigger in public.” One way to look at this week’s revelations is to consider them an acknowledgement that such racism still exists and needs to be dealt with. Another way to look at them, especially considering the disconnect between the revealed racist actions and the actors unwillingness to accept any real consequences, is that we’re actually moving backwards, towards the days when overt public racism was accepted, and these revelations are serving to re-normalize those attitudes.
It’s not hard to see how racism could be making a comeback. The President of the United States routinely mocks Native Americans and demonizes Latinos, even preaching this divisive “bad news” as a sort of anti-gospel during the State of the Union. Meanwhile, he finds “fine people” among the white nationalists who, emboldened by the Trump era political climate, briefly emerged from their closets and marched, torches in hand (when David Duke is endorsing the winning Presidential candidate, we have a big problem), before being shamed and shouted away; sadly killing Heather Heyes in the process. White racial fear and political activation are going hand in hand with attempts, from the streets of Charlottesville to the halls of Congress to make white racism an acceptable ideology.
But let’s get back to that silver lining. Even if the individuals who have made these revelations of racism don’t see the big deal behind their words and actions, many of those around them do and are working to hold them accountable. Such accountability should, in my opinion, include a pathway to redemption and an opportunity to become part of the solution rather than the problem, but that can only come if attempts to mainstream racism are resisted and the individuals in question are truly willing (or pushed) to recognize, reflect and reconsider their actions and the beliefs that caused them. I’m hopeful that this can indeed happen in America – even in Virginia.