Like many of you I have been following discussions of the revelation that Virginia Governor Ralph Northam dressed in blackface or as a member of the Ku Klux Klan when he was a medical student. It was reported that Northam was earlier known as “coonman,” an epithet which suggests that he had blackened his face more than once. His later admission that he put only a little bit of black shoe polish on his face because it is hard to get off, when he dressed up as Michael Jackson, seems to confirm that blackface was something he had tried before. There was also the fact that students had been asked by the yearbook committee to submit photographs for their pages: Northam did not say if he submitted the photographs on his page.
Some commented that Northam’s was not a (possibly forgivable) youthful offense, but one committed by a twenty-six year-old adult. Others said that Northam’s failure to take full responsibility for his apparently repeated behavior and the hurt and harm his actions and actions like them had caused was the more serious offense. Perhaps he could still have governed if he had apologized fully, told the story of how he came to understand race relations on a deeper level, and immediately offered to meet with black leaders and restorative justice experts to discuss what he could to earn back the trust of the people who elected him.
Everyone seemed relieved that Northam would be replaced by a young progressive black man. It seemed like a happy ending to a very sad story.
And then the other shoe dropped. Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax was accused of forcible sexual assault by a black woman named Dr. Vanessa Tyson who had absolutely nothing to gain by telling her story. Some opined that this new accusation should not distract from the discussion of race. Others seemed relieved that the story was uncorroborated. And then it was.
Meredith Watson stated that Justin Fairfax raped her when they were students at Duke University. To make matters worse, Watson said that Fairfax was a friend she had told about being raped by another student. When she confronted Fairfax after he raped her, he replied that he assumed that nothing would happen to him because nothing had happened to the other guy.
Before this second story came forward, commenters resisted comparing Northam’s actions to those Fairfax was alleged to have committed. After all, they said, Northam did not deny that he had worn blackface, while Fairfax claimed that he was innocent. Now many are calling for Fairfax to resign.
Black people are rightly angry that they have to be reminded of the callous attitudes of white people toward the injustice represented by blackface. Wearing blackface may have been perceived as “just a joke” by white people, but for black people it is part of what sociologist Clifford Geertz called “a system of symbols” that create “long-lasting moods and motivations.” The fact that the man in blackface was standing next to a man wearing a Klan uniform makes this connection clear: blackface is not simply a stupid and hurtful mistake; it is part of the worldview in which the Klan operates.
If any white people wish to serve as leaders after wearing blackface, at minimum they need to publicly articulate the ways in which blackface contributes to injustice and openly commit themselves to making amends for what white people have done to black people. In other words, they cannot simply move on. If they intend to move on, they must acknowledge the broken world in which they were raised and call upon all white people to work to repair it. Can Northam still do this? Possibly. But that would take courage.
In the days between the drafting of this piece and its publication, Northam met privately with black leaders, apologized more fully for his actions, and promised to make restorative justice the focus the rest of his tenure in office. It is fair to say that not only his constituents, but the world, will be watching him closely. It is profoundly to be hoped that Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring, who has admitted that he wore blackface in college, will also pledge his personal commitment and the resources of his office to restoring justice for the victims of racism in his state.
The case of Justin Fairfax is different. Yes, he is proclaiming his innocence. But he is accused of doing more than callously or unthinkingly participating in a worldview that legitimates harm. He is accused of committing a violent crime—not once, but twice. The statement in support of Dr. Tyson (which I signed) explains why we should believe the accusers.
As scholars we also know that decades of empirical evidence make clear that problems with reporting sexual violence are ones of under-reporting, not of fabrication, and that rates of reporting are particularly low for women of color [italics added]. This evidence makes clear as well that people who report sexual assault stand to gain nothing and, in fact, risk a great deal.
Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax must resign. He may escape prosecution or conviction, but if he does, it will only be because we have an unjust legal system that makes it very difficult for the testimony of women who are raped to convict their rapists.
A few days ago I agreed that Northam needed to resign. In part because the resignation or removal of Northam, Fairfax, and Herring would put a Republican with no commitment to ending racism in office, and in part because of Northam’s fuller apology and renewed commitment to restoring justice, I have changed my mind. Let us hope that in this case good can come out of evil.
And while you’re at it, Governor Northam, don’t forget black women! Along with Roots you might consider Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and along with Ta-Nehisi Coates you might look into Vanessa Tyson’s essay on sexual violence as a political issue to be published in March 2019 in Journal of Women, Politics, and Policy. And if you have felt more comfortable meeting with black men, now is the time to step out of your comfort zone. Racial justice for all will not be achieved if only men are invited to the table.
Carol P. Christ is an internationally known feminist writer, activist, and educator living in Heraklion, Crete. Carol’s recent book written with Judith Plaskow, Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology, is on Amazon. A Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess is on sale for $9.99 on Amazon. Carol has been leading Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete for over twenty years: join her in Crete. Carol’s photo by Michael Honneger.
Listen to Carol’s a-mazing interview with Mary Hynes on CBC’s Tapestry recorded in conjunction with her keynote address to the Parliament of World’s Religions.