EDITORIAL: Never an excuse for blackface
How it is 2019 and there are headlines both nationally and locally about persons of prominence made up in blackface?
As Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam fights for his political life after publication of a photo that may or may not depict him in blackface, a York County elementary school principal has apologized in response to a similar incident.
There are extenuating circumstances in both cases, but that excuses neither.
In Virginia, Northam has given conflicting accounts following publication of a photo from his 1984 medical school yearbook that shows two students – one depicted in blackface, the other in the white robe and conical hood of the Ku Klux Klan.
The first-term Democrat first apologized for the photo, which appears in a gallery of images depicting him. But a day later, he insisted he was not in the offending photo, didn’t know why it was on his page, and defiantly rejected increasing calls for his resignation
Astonishingly, part of his defense was that he had darkened his skin on a different occasion – to mimic Michael Jackson for a dance contest.
“I used just a little bit of shoe polish to put on my cheeks,” he said during an unusual – and unusually self-undermining – press conference on Saturday. “And the reason I used a very little bit because – I don’t know if anyone’s ever tried that – you cannot get shoe polish off.”
No, we haven’t tried that. And the fact that Northam had – often enough to know how much to use – further erodes any benefit of the doubt he may have deserved. Add the changing explanations for the offensive photo and subsequent disclosure that he had a racially insensitive nickname as a young adult, and it becomes clear that Northam has lost the moral authority to effectively fill his role as governor.
He must bow to the growing chorus demanding his resignation.
The punishment need not be as severe for Friendship Elementary School Principal Lisa Boyer, though her actions are no less troubling.
The Southern York County School District confirmed last week that Boyer, who is white, was reprimanded after darkening her face to portray African-American TV game show host Steve Harvey during an in-school team-building exercise last August.
According to the district, Boyer wore men’s clothes, a mustache, and dark makeup during a faculty version of the Harvey-hosted “Family Feud.” District Superintendent Sandra Lemmon also said, in a letter sent to district residents last week, that Boyer was immediately disciplined when word of the incident reached districts offices several days later.
Boyer, who has not commented publicly, apologized to her colleagues, Lemmon’s letter said. She is also working with the administration to increase her diversity awareness.
The district sent the letter in response to community concerns that the incident was neither adequately addressed nor publicly acknowledged.
Absent a record of insensitive behavior along the lines of Northam’s, the district’s response seems appropriate – although its disclosure was, in the vernacular of the classroom, tardy.
Still, school officials, governors, all right-thinking adults ought not to need reminding about the racial insensitivity of blackening one’s face. Its purpose is to demean, its history is hate-filled and it perpetuates ethnic stereotypes that have no place in decent society.
If that is not profoundly clear, the need for diversity awareness runs far deeper than a local elementary school principal.