How To Come Back from Blackface: You Can’t

Ashka Jhaveri

An article from the BBC states that “Skeletons seem to be making a mass exodus from public figures closets of late.” These skeletons must be pushed into the light and faced with the wrath of the public for what they are: a racist exercises of power and white supremacy. As blackface begins to dominate the news and leader after leader is subjugated to the torrent of the public and the media, the apologies have to be called into question. What kind of apology should be accepted by society? Are politicians apologizing for the simple sake of reelection and protecting their public image? How do we hold accountable such fundamental flaws of character, especially when they are direct assaults on people’s race? Throughout U.S. history, media has perpetuated the humor of blackface. Thomas D. Rice was a white New York actor who first developed the concept of blackface as a way to perpetuate the negative stereotypes of African Americans and use them for entertainment. Now known as the “Father of Minstrelsy,” Rice sparked the widespread usage of blackface in theatrics across the country. During a time where many emancipated slaves were advocating for civil rights, whites in the country felt threatened and rallied around racist norms and laws to assert their power over the country. Theatre had a part in this mission, and minstrel shows put cultural ideas of black inferiority into song and dance numbers. Blackface began to fizzle away with the surge of the Civil Right Movement, however one can see that it has not died. The negative vernacular and stereotypes of African Americans has persisted into today. In a time of unkept promises, fluctuating policies, and unpredictability flowing from the White House, many people are hoping for stability in their political offices. Politicians themselves are hoping that with every speech or apology made, it will quell the public dissent and their reign in office will continue. The complexities of the situation escalates when you seperate those politicians whose past wrongful actions were discovered, and those who admitted it in a sign of honesty. In Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology, a book by Edwin Battistella, the concept of devaluing an apology due to an underlying desire for political gain is discussed. The author argues that many politicians will use conditional language with the audience in a hope to generalize the issue and have it pass with time. Public figures nowadays are less willing to take responsibility for their actions and would rather dodge around the details. Politicians use one of two apology methods in times where their character is questioned by a past event according to Battistella: “the apology tour, a series of speeches and interviews pursued as an expedient opportunity to express regret, versus the non-apology, such as when Oregon Senator Bob Parkwood apologised in 1992 for ‘the conduct that it was alleged that I did.’” In the case of blackface, when a politician has a history of directly participating in the act that is still today a sign of the dehumanization of African Americans and an exercise of white supremacy, an apology cannot be enough. By understanding the roots of a political apology and the self-preservation undertone of the speeches that have made recent headlines, one must never forget the actions to which were committed and the culture they represent.