Here’s what these Northeastern professors say is missing from the national debate over blackface

Margaret Burnham, University Distinguished Professor of Law and director of the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

In the ongoing national debate over the topic of blackface, spurred recently by the revelations about Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, Attorney General Mark Herring, and officers in the Baton Rouge Police Department, two diverging opinions appear to be emerging.

Some apologists argue that we should let “bygones be bygones,” that judging racial miscues of the past is a pointless and complicated exercise that further pushes us into our corners. Others, including Northeastern professor Moya Bailey, argue that the very act of darkening one’s skin, regardless of when the offense occurred, is indicative of an offender’s belief system, which shapes the way he or she makes impactful and far-reaching decisions.

After initially admitting to it, Northam is now denying that he appeared in blackface in a photo contained in his Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook from 1984.

Bailey, a scholar of race, gender, and disability studies, who wrote her doctoral dissertation on the representation of race and gender in medical school yearbooks, says her research shows that societal stereotypes about race and gender inadvertently seep into the curriculum in medical schools, and inform how students make decisions as medical professionals. What they learn contributes to disparate treatment in hospitals, she says, and consequently exacerbates disparities in healthcare.

“These racist ideologies have real-world impact,” says Bailey, an assistant professor of cultures, societies, and global studies and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies. “It’s not just about people’s senses of being offended. It has everything to do with how that then impacts the way that they give care if they are a physician. These racist ideologies, accompanied with this racist iconography in the yearbooks, end up perpetuating a racist practice at the hands of these physicians and other people who work with black people in other contexts.”

Bailey says that offenders should be held accountable for their past misdeeds.

“Blackface is not OK, in the 1980s or in 2019,” she says. “I don’t think that they can plead ignorance. These were grown men who made these decisions. [Northam] is somebody who was preparing to be a medical doctor.”

Margaret Burnham, a University Distinguished Professor of Law, says she supports calls for Northam to resign.

“He admits to trafficking in blackface, and not as a youthful ‘prank,’ but as an emerging professional,” says Burnham, who founded and directs the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project at Northeastern’s School of Law, through which she and her students investigate acts of racial violence that took place in the South from 1930 to 1970. Most recently, the group uncovered the details of the death in 1948 of a black man named Rayfield Davis, whose story was chronicled in the Northeastern documentary Murder In Mobile.

“The picture he endorsed, if not posed in, contains all the elements of what makes blackface so devastating: it seeks to conceal white domination with humor, but in this particular image the blackface clown stands next to the KKK, linking amusement with violent subordination,” Burnham says of Northam.

Bailey says that people who dress in blackface can start to make up for what they have done by expressing remorse, offering apologies, and showing how they’ve been transformed by their past experiences.

Moya Bailey. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Burnham is uncertain about what offenders can do to make amends, and who should be tasked with formulating policies to address past injustices.

“Some black politicians and civic leaders, rejecting the call for his removal, have instead called on Gov. Northam to address issues like equitable funding for black colleges, the removal of Confederate monuments, and affordable housing,” Burnham says. “Contrition is not enough, is what they seem to be saying. It must be accompanied by concrete reparative measures.”

Bailey warned that when we focus on the transgressions of individuals, we miss the larger problem: the way that systemic racism has shaped American society. This is what seems to be missing from the national dialogue around blackface, she says; we’re focusing on a single symptom of racial ideology instead of dealing with America’s racial divide.

“I think that’s a much deeper question that has to be addressed, not at the level of the individual, but at the level of society,” she says. “What’s the transformative justice practice around this that actually changes the way that people think so that incidents like these and others don’t happen again? Individual people are symptoms of a larger issue and of a society that has yet to reckon with its racist history.”

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