As he was dying of AIDS-related pneumonia, the tennis great Arthur Ashe answered a reporter's question about the greatest burden he had faced in life. The reporter might have expected Ashe to cite his diminishing health. Instead, Ashe, who grew up in segregated Richmond, Va., said "being black is the greatest burden I've had to bear."
Ashe's answer is as relevant now as it was then, an open window into this nation's persistent, unrequited struggle with race. By now we all know the news about Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring, both white Democrats. Herring has admitted wearing blackface as a Halloween costume in the 1980s. Northam weirdly suggested he might have done the same before retracting that admission. Meanwhile, Virginia Senate majority leader Tommy Norment, a Republican, edited a 1968 college yearbook filled with blackface photos.
Such incidents should not be minimized as youthful mistakes, but seen as racially insensitive moments that expose this nation's inability to confront and exorcise its demons. Days before Virginia's blackface controversy exploded as a national disgrace, a Pew Research Center survey found that white adults are about twice as likely as black adults to say the use of blackface as part of a Halloween costume can be acceptable — 39 percent to 19 percent. And about one-in-three Americans surveyed say blackface is always or sometimes acceptable.
That's disheartening and remarkably tone-deaf. The color of one's skin is personal and defining, the negative impacts of which African-Americans have confronted for decades. Unjust laws in this country revolved for most of our history around skin color, mandating where African-Americans could eat, shop, travel, work or live. Skin color was not a joking matter. It determined life or death, and was the measuring stick that denied opportunities. And that's why blackface is not benign.
Blackface was a humiliating, theatrical device used mostly by non-black performers to caricature a black person for the entertainment of white audiences. It was featured prominently in early animated cartoons, masks, advertising, fashion and film, reinforcing a controlling narrative that African-Americans are buffoons and racially inferior. And such attitudes justified outrageous abuses.
As NAACP president Derrick Johnson recently wrote in response to the Virginia incidents, this is "the consequence of our nation's collective unwillingness to recognize that 400 years of dehumanizing language and imagery have a cultural impact that expresses itself through explicit and implicit bias." And, that bias extends beyond blackface to a plethora of other demonizing code words and racial dog whistles that pollute modern politics.
When someone adopts blackface as a costume, the act is blatantly disrespectful and mocking. The passage of time doesn't make blackface acceptable, nor does the defense that no malice was intended. Racial parodies are not amusing. Suggesting that blackface is acceptable in some forms simply widens the nation's racial chasm.
As a nation, we've had many so-called conversations about race, most of which have been monologues. But we must listen and learn, put aside preconceptions, embrace empathy and lower defenses that minimize the pain of others. Let's start by agreeing that blackface and the attitudes it spawns have no place in a society that so urgently needs civility and respectful encounters.
— Reprinted with permission from the Dallas Morning News