You Are Not Exempt

Photo: Alex Wong (Getty)

The ongoing political crisis in Virginia—if you’ve been under a rock, both the governor and attorney general have admitted to wearing blackface in the past, and the lieutenant governor has been accused of sexual assaulthas completely derailed the state. And even white politicians with their fingerprints nowhere near any of this are starting to get asked an uncomfortable question: Did you wear blackface, too?

Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, a former governor of Virginia who called for Northam to step down over the weekend, was asked this very question on Wednesday. Here’s how he responded:

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Not a good answer.

There’s two ways to interpret Kaine’s off-the-cuff remark. The first is that he couldn’t have worn blackface because he grew up in a place where diversity was woven into the fabric of everyday life. The only problem is that this isn’t exactly true. Kaine grew up in Overland Park, KS, a suburb just outside of Kansas City. And while “I grew up in Kansas City” might be a perfectly fine response to “Where are you from” for someone who grew up 15 minutes outside of a major city, it’s a terrible one for “Have you ever worn blackface?”

To start, Overland Park is predominantly white and well-off; just five percent of its population, per the 2010 Census, identified as African-American, while 84 percent identified as white. The county it’s a part of, Johnson, is the wealthiest in the state and one of the wealthiest in the country. Kansas City, MO, on the other hand, is much more diverse, with its black population around 30 percent and its Latinx population around 10 percent. Even though the two are in close proximity to each other, the experience of growing up in Overland Park and growing up in Kansas City is worlds apart, just as my experience growing up in suburban Delaware was completely different than someone who grew up in Philadelphia.

The second way to interpret Kaine’s comment is that, because he grew up in the Midwest (or just not in the South more generally) he couldn’t have been exposed to transparent racism like this. While Kaine may not have been personally exposed to it, or worn blackface himself, that simply isn’t true.

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As recently as October, a nurse in Kansas City was fired for wearing blackface while dressing as Beyonce for Halloween. And it’s not just Kansas City, either: The internet is littered with stories about people wearing blackface all over the country. In 2019 alone, there have been blackface scandals at Tufts University in Massachusetts, a Christian school in California, and a prep school in Brooklyn on Long Island. Type in any state and “blackface” into Google and you’ll find a litany of examples.

In fact, prior to this year, the biggest political blackface scandal in recent memory was probably when New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind wore blackface at a party. In 2013. Hikind just left office this year, by the way, and completely of his own accord.

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It may very well be that this kind of thing is more prevalent in the South than in other places. In the days since the Northam announcement, much younger graduates of the University of Virginia—a public Ivy—have pointed out that people were wearing blackface at frat parties as recently as 2002. And on Wednesday, North Carolina political reporter Colin Campbell found this, from a UNC yearbook in the late seventies:

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So, there’s no denying that the South has its own demons to excise, ones that should have been violently destroyed through Reconstruction. (That is another blog for another day.) But Kaine’s statement perpetuates the notion that this kind of undisguised and raw racism can only happen in Deliverance, GA, when that simply is not the case.

The best result that could come from this whole embarrassing and really sad episode is that it causes white people in every corner of the country to examine their own experiences of observing or actively participating in, either purposefully or inadvertently, racism and white supremacy. The worst is that those of us who are white but not native Southerners just laugh or frown and say, “This isn’t my problem.”

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