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Two years ago, I delivered a talk at the Tidewater Community College Literary Festival called “Scenes from a White Boy’s Life,” in which I reflected on my lifelong efforts to understand “the problem of the color line,” as W.E.B Du Bois put it. I talked about visiting my grandparents in Tallahassee in the early ‘60s and my memories of riding with my father as he drove my grandmother’s black housekeeper home to “colored town,” as they called it; I talked about how common the word “n%#$@” was in the all-white neighborhood where I grew up, and I recalled my first day in an integrated high school where my initiation was a punch in the sternum from a black kid twice my size who warned me, “Stay off this corner, white boy.”
I concluded my talk by acknowledging that as a white man, I know that I can never fully understand what it’s like to be black in America—all I can do is try by paying attention to racism in all of its forms, especially unconscious expressions. A case in point: When I was working my first newspaper job in New York, I became friends with a fellow reporter named Stanley, the only black person on the newsroom staff. One night when Stanley and I were hanging out at our favorite bar, another friend, Tony, who’s white, came up to Stanley and said, ‘Wassup my n%#$@?”
“Tony, don’t say that to me,” Stanley said calmly.
“Why not? Black people say it to each other all the time,” Tony responded.
“That’s different,” Stanley said.
Tony had meant no offense; he was just clueless. I’m happy to say that I’m still in touch with him, and his understanding of racism has evolved considerably since then.
I thought about that incident again recently after the Ralph Northam controversy erupted. As I watched Northam’s press conference, it occurred to me that his insistence that neither of the men in the photo was him could in fact be legit. Yearbook editors sometimes make mistakes, after all. But let’s assume for the moment that Northam was one of the two men in that now-infamous photograph. What are we to make of it?
I’ve only met Northam on one occasion, but I have several close friends who know him well, and they all insist that he has never displayed a hint of racism. Moreover, people who knew him when he was at EVMS have said he never displayed any racist tendencies back then either. And yet the photograph is horribly offensive, with one person wearing the most iconic symbol of racism—a Klan hood—and another in blackface, as if he had just stepped out of an 19th century minstrel show. In the aftermath, people seemed to focus more on the man in blackface, probably because of Northam’s bizarre admission that he had, in fact, blackened his face on another occasion when he imitated Michael Jackson in a talent show.
So how are we to reconcile these two things: The admission that he dressed up in blackface, and the insistence from people who know him that he was never a racist?
We may never find an answer to that question, but it seems plausible that like my friend Tony, Northam was just clueless about the implications of blackface, which can only be fully understood if you know the history of the minstrel tradition. It also seems crystal clear from the work that he has done as an army officer, a doctor and a public official that he has grown significantly since then.
Alas, none of that seems to matter. But the refusal to consider Northam’s gross insensitivity in context points to two serious problems we have in our society.
One is political. “We’ve all made mistakes, but we need to hold our public officials to a higher standard,” said one caller on the show HearSay, a few days after the scandal broke.
My immediate thought in response was, and what standard would that be? Super-human, with a flawless past?
I suppose this is nothing new. There’s always been this streak of childishness in America’s collective psyche that craves god-like leaders, just as it craves god-like celebrities. And woe to those who display any indication that they are now, or ever were, merely flawed human beings. We are quick to put them on Mount Olympus, and we are just as quick to scorn them when they fall.
The other problem—which is more severe—is our failure to talk about racism in anything but the most simplistic way: the notion that you’re either racist or you’re not. Unfortunately, we will never come to terms with the problem unless we agree to think about it in more nuanced terms.
Let me tell you another story. Some years ago, I was talking about this issue with an elderly white woman who insisted that she “didn’t have a racist bone in her body.”
“We need to help them,” she said.
It was clear to me that her responses were heartfelt, but she failed to take two things into account. One is that the notion that black people need our help is racist in and of itself because it assigns a childlike quality to African-Americans. The other was her failure to take her life experiences into account. I knew for a fact that she had never known a black person as a peer. Growing up in the segregated South, she had only known blacks as maids, yardmen, and country-club waiters.
My own mother was the same way. She didn’t consciously believe in discrimination, and her racism wasn’t a philosophy. It was simply a matter of unconscious conditioning, and she never overcame it.
Many people of my generation were more enlightened because we came of age in a transitional period marked by the Civil Rights Movement when we were children, “busing,” when we were adolescents, and the fruits of those efforts as we grew into adulthood. And yet many of us still carry traces of racism that manifest themselves in a variety of ways.
By and large they manifest as denial—a belief that racism has long since been relegated to the margins of society. Most white people I know are appalled by the resurgence of the KKK and other blunt-force expressions of bigotry. But they’re ignorant of the degree to which black people and other minorities experience more subtle forms of racism in everyday life. As a white man, I’m sure I’m unconscious of this much of the time myself. I’m able to contemplate it to some degree only because I’ve had many interracial conversations about it—including conversations with my African-American students.
All of this leads me back to the Northam scandal. The great tragedy is that we will likely learn nothing from this. Forcing Northam to resign may be the right thing to do (as of press time he still had not), but it won’t begin to address the real problem. On the contrary, my fear is that it will make matters worse by leaving a lot of people feeling self-satisfied that they stood up to racism, and now we can “move on.” (I’ve heard that phrase a lot since the scandal broke.)
No we can’t. The greatest threat to racial healing is not from overt racists. It’s from people who harbor traces of racism unconsciously but adamantly deny it—and from people who dismiss it as something that only rears its head occasionally, at KKK rallies or in old yearbook photos of men who are now in high places.
The Northam scandal, in short, will die out. My only hope is that the conversation doesn’t die out as well.