Just When We Thought It Couldn’t Get Worse, It Did by Carol P. Christ


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.

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Categories: abuse, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, General, Racism, Rape, Rape Culture, Restorative Justice

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15 replies

  1. Thanks Carol, Thanks for your interesting analysis and description of one of the paths necessary to step out of this morass. Both the cases of Fairfax and Northam seem connected in what I believe Starhawk writes about: the concept of power over, not power with or even better yet, power within. The destruction is never ends when any human being exerts such “power over.”

    I am reading the book White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. Hefty book.

    Like

    • As bad as blackface is I don’t think it compares with rape. However, blackface certainly is part of a power over mentality. Northstrom has not done very well speaking of his former racism, but it is interesting that black Virginians do not want him to resign. Sounds like they know most white people have racism in their pasts and know that if innocence is the standard, they/we should all be kicked out.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Thank you, Carol, for this piece. I agree with you and especially like this paragraph:

    “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.”

    None of us can adequately be described as “just one thing.” Chimamanda Adichie, Nigerian author, address this point well in her Ted Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story.” What I find devastating is that so often especially in the world of politics (but not exclusively) people get painted with a single stroke and many times that single stroke becomes THE definitive single story about an individual. Do we (collectively) have the patience to see if Northam uses this incident to show us that he does indeed see things differently from bygone days? Guess time will tell.

    Liked by 1 person

    • An innocence standard will show most people to be guilty to greater and lesser degrees. I do think people can change. I certainly did, though at a younger age than Northam. I think there is more hope in holding Northam to his commitment to work for racial justice than there is in putting someone in who claims to be innocent or worse doesn’t care at all about racial justice. I don’t however feel the same about rape. Rape is a violent act.

      Liked by 3 people

  3. Well stated, Carol. Thank you.

    Like

  4. You’re right: it has gotten worse, and just this morning I was thinking that I am now ashamed to be American. I’ve been wondering since that story came out how Northam could not know what’s on his page. But maybe he’s grown up now. We can only hope.

    As for Fairfax, I am not sure rape is ever forgiveable, and how can any man grow out of being a rapist? I can remember reading several books back in the 70s at the beginning of the 2nd women’s movement that rape isn’t sexual; it’s all about power.

    It’s time for our power to rise again. I have a bumper sticker that says I AM THE BLUE WAVE. Yesterday I taped it to my window under the sticker that says NOT MY PRESIDENT. ‘Nuff said.

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  5. Great post Carol… these words say it all:

    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.

    of course we must believe the accusers.

    Like

  6. Two of our nation’s deepest unhealed wounds laid bare. How everyone, the public included, responds is important. Thanks for this post, Carol.

    Like

  7. Thank you, Carol! To add my take, at first my reaction was the same as yours, that Northam should resign. But as you suggest, people might not fully realize what it would mean for all three of the top Dem officeholders to resign: it means we’d get Rethug Kirk Cox (Speaker of the Virginia House) for governor, and he plus the Rethug-controlled lege would undo all progress made so far, make abortion at any time for any reason illegal, and stop the reversal of gerrymandering in its tracks. The people of Virginia didn’t vote for Rethugs in 2017, we voted for Dems. There’s probably a solution, but it won’t be easy or quick.

    I’m heartsick about this. If Northam remains, he should perform an enormous act of expiation. If the charges against Fairfax are true, he should resign. As far as Mark Herring goes—it’s not a great situation, but he, too, should perform an act of expiation. We must include women of color in the general discourse. I’d like to see Northam appoint a black woman as Lt. Governor if Fairfax resigns.

    You know what would happen if abortion becomes illegal? Next they’d make the morning-after pill illegal. Then they’d make all oral contraceptives illegal. Here in Virginia we’d be living in the Republic of Gilead.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes I agree that the fact that the people of VA did not vote for a Republican whose majority was won as we recall by a draw from a hat, should be taken into consideration. This is called contextual ethics as opposed to going by the rules above all.

      Like

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