Opinion

We’ve all got work to do on race

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (AP photo)
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (AP photo)

Although I was born and raised in the South, I never knew a soul who, in the tortured words of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, “put shoe polish on my cheeks, not a lot because that’s real hard to get off…” and pretended to be African American.

And, as we all know, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring admitted wearing blackface at a party when he was 19 to seem as cool as hip-hop pioneer Kurtis Blow.

Jesus, take the wheel.

Since the scandal ignited weeks ago, the national pundits are implying all Southerners spent decades runnin’ around posing in blackface long after such a thing was correctly condemned as racist. I pored over my yearbooks and saw no such foolishness.

Does this mean I’m some aberration, not truly a Southerner?

The answer is, I’m Southern but not THAT kind of Southerner.

I’m the kind who thinks it’s hilarious when someone says: “Some of y’all were raised on Miracle Whip instead of Duke’s and it shows.”

I’m the kind who never fails to hang sheets on the clothesline on a cloudless 80-degree day in February because anything less would be profoundly ungrateful to the Almighty.

I’m the kind of Southerner who always has a stash of Lance peanut butter crackers in her purse in case I get “the weak tremblin’s” and, yes, I’m the kind of Southerner who has a secret source for both collards and honey. Duh.

Glad that’s settled. But…am I truly innocent? When frustrated in the ‘80s, did I not “pity the fool” in an impersonation of Mr. T? No blackface. No mohawk, no bling. I just pitied the fool. Yes, it was hilarious, I’m sure, from a short, plump blonde Southern woman. Oh, wait. No, it wasn’t.

To further confess, in the ‘70s, did I not say, “I’m comin’ to join you, Elizabeth!” a la Redd Foxx’s brilliant Fred Sanford on more than one—or 10—occasions? I said this after eating too much spicy food while reaping the whirlwind of reflux. Fred used it when he wanted to remind his beleaguered son Lamont he wouldn’t be around forever. (Which is actually very Southern manipulation.)

Language is complicated. When a black commentator told a white Republican on “Real Time With Bill Maher” he’d “try to put things in NASCAR terms,” it was clearly meant as a putdown. We all have work to do. But, yes, white folks have much more of it. Why? That’s easy. Slavery. Not “indentured servitude” as Northam foolishly described it. It’s on white folks to own that. Period.

Kurtis Blow condemned the blackface revelations in Virginia but urged the nation to seize this teachable moment. He’s a reverend now, which means he’s prone to forgiveness. We could use some of that out here.

For me, that’s hitting the pause button before I wag my finger, tilt my head and deliver a culturally appropriated “No, he DID-UNT.”

It means I’ll think twice before I say “I know THA’S right” or even “Girrrrrllllll” in my best (really terrible) imitation of the fabulous Tiffany Haddish.

It’s a start.

Celia Rivenbark is an NYT-bestselling author and columnist. Visit www.celiarivenbark.com.



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