Column: How imagery drives racism

Illustration by Steck Von

Fadel Allassan, News Editor

For the many who doubt the existence of racism in contemporary American society, a glance at the news in the last couple of weeks could serve as a reality check.

On the first day of Black History Month, Virginia’s democratic governor, Ralph Northam, admitted to being one of two people in a photo featuring a person wearing blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan robe. On the second day, he denied being in the photo at all, then said he actually wore blackface as part of a Michael Jackson costume for a dance competition in 1984.

Just days later, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring admitted he had also worn blackface in the 1980s to appear as rapper Kurtis Blow.

On Feb. 7, The Virginian-Pilot broke the news that State Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, a Republican who represents parts of North Hampton Roads, was the managing editor of a 1968 Virginia Military Institute yearbook that included racial slurs and blackface photos.

The Commonwealth Times broke news on Feb. 8 that the yearbooks of VCU, MCV and the school’s predecessor, Richmond Professional Institute, were inundated with blackface and outright racist imagery up until 1989. Among the most striking of the discoveries was an apparent “slave sale” students held as a fundraiser in the 1950s.

The trove of blackface photos discovered in the yearbooks of VCU and many other schools across the country in recent weeks speak to the prevalence and ubiquity of racism in American culture. Blackface minstrel shows were the most popular form of entertainment in the 19th century. Blackface costumes were apparently still accepted in the mainstream just decades ago. Today, many Americans don’t see the problem with the practice — almost 35 percent of white Americans said blackface was “sometimes” or “always” acceptable in a Pew Research poll conducted just before the Northam controversy. More than half of the white Americans polled said blackface is acceptable for a Halloween costume.

For people who are familiar with the historical power of blackface imagery, seeing these photos is all too painful.

During slavery, blackface minstrel shows were used to depict blacks as docile and happy — giving the impression that they were content with being enslaved. In the Reconstruction era, minstrel shows depicted blacks as violent and unable to adapt to American life.

This kind of imagery had a profound effect on white Americans, most of whom had never come in contact with blacks.

By validating stereotypes and pushing the notion that blacks weren’t suited for American society, blackface contributed to the racist laws and violence that have hallmarked the U.S. for centuries. Its existence in a more modern setting shows how mainstream disrespect for black people persisted long after the civil rights era.

It is important for our collective psyches to revisit clear examples of contemporary racism so we recognize how prevalent it has remained. It is also important to counteract such images with uplifting depictions of black Americans.

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