In light of the recent controversy surrounding Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook, in which he and a classmate posed in blackface and donned a Ku Klux Klan robe, the University of Michigan Institute for the Humanities hosted the panel discussion titled “The Politics of Blackface Then and Now: What’s in Your Yearbook?” Monday afternoon in North Quad Residence Hall.
The event drew a crowd of more than 50, though only a handful of students attended. The event was part of the High Stakes Culture series hosted by the Institute for the Humanities and U-M Humanities Collaboratory, which brings humanities professors together for a conversation about relevant political issues and current events.
Monday’s conversation was moderated by Angela Dillard, associate dean for undergraduate education, focused primarily on the ramifications of blackface and the prevalence of minstrelsy throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. In the early 19th century, minstrel shows featuring white actors performing dances in black makeup gained popularity.
Panelists also discussed redface, or the commercialization of Native American identity, and yellowface, the appropriation of Asian cultures. Dillard said these conversations about blackface reveal how common expressions of overt racism are in modern American society.
“For weeks on end, what was lurking in yearbooks became a national obsession,” Dillard said. “One that reminds us of issues around blackface, race, racism and various forms of cultural appropriation are still alive and very present in our contemporary landscape.”
Many panelists noted the tendency to dismiss incidents of blackface, redface and yellowface as isolated episodes that ignore the history behind cultural appropriation.
Stephen Berrey, associate professor of American culture, said blackface appearing in yearbooks is a prime example of how this form of racism was considered “safe” or acceptable in many communities, including Northam’s medical school, relatively recently.
“There’s a reason why this 1984 yearbook pops out there and then kind of disappears for however many years it’s been,” Berrey said. “It’s because, at the time, it was not a big deal in that community for these white people. And that’s important to note — if it’s in the yearbook, it means that it was safe for those white people. Which means, of course, that blackface was safe and normal all over the country well into the 1970s.”
Berrey explained a blackface photograph in a yearbook does not only represent the beliefs of one or two students, but instead reflects the culture of an entire community.
“If we look at that yearbook, we may think that’s Ralph Northam or maybe somebody else,” Berrey said. “It’s those two students, but it’s more than that. It’s the layout person, it’s the editor, it’s the staff, it’s the faculty, it’s the administrator, if it’s a high school it’s the school board, it’s the community. There’s a complicity. The reason why we don’t know about all of these axes is that nobody cared about them at the time who was in these communities. There’s a complicity that is perfectly okay.”
Similarly, Bethany Hughes, assistant professor of American culture and Native American Studies, said appropriation of Native American culture did not arise from offensive Halloween costumes or school mascots, but actually began as early as the Boston Tea Party in 1773. Hughes said the Americans’ choice to dress in what they believed was Native American clothing reflects the deeper history of cultural exploitation.
“It was not necessarily to disguise their identity, maybe a little bit, but it was a way of taking on a persona and in some sense claiming indigeneity to America, that we are made here, and also claiming this sort of warrior, aggressive action,” Hughes said. “The history of redface doesn’t start in popular culture entertainment — it actually starts in civic and political protest as far as an American identity around redface. There is a longer history of redface in imported European entertainment and theater.”
Hughes noted how the popularity of redface in contemporary American culture disregards and undermines the differences between Native American communities.
“There’s this embodied knowledge of what it means to see and recognize an Indian, that then is imported directly into film and television,” Hughes said. “The markers that are identifiably Sioux … that are Oglala, that are Lakota, all of those get imported into a generic Indian identity that then get picked up and can be utilized in film and television.”
LSA freshman Caroline Reed attended the panel and said the discussion made her think more deeply about a blackface incident she experienced.
“I was at a relative’s house helping them clean out some stuff and came across a photo of them in blackface, and I got nervous so I put it back in the box and didn’t say anything about it,” Reed said. “I didn’t acknowledge that I even found it, I just kind of went about my life. Obviously it’s a generational difference, but as an 18-year-old, I felt really angry at why they would even do that. I was just wondering how to address it and learn from that negative problem.”
Reed said the panelists’ presentations on redface and yellowface allowed her to understand that cultural appropriation is an issue that affects many different communities in equally devastating ways.
“I hear about blackface a lot, but I never really thought about the implications of redface and yellowface and how that affects other races,” Reed said. “I think that stood out to me a lot, that it’s not limited to one stereotype and extends to all kinds of different people.”
The panel also included comments from Peter Ho Davies professor of English and Matthew Countryman professor of Afroamerican and African studies, American Culture and History.