DETROIT — In the brightly lit Vintage Barbershop in northwest Detroit, Thomas Carter carefully trimmed the graying hair of a customer as he was asked about photos that depict whites wearing blackface.
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He paused and slowly scanned the shop where about a half-dozen black men of various ages awaited their turn. “It’s not funny to me. It’s not funny to me at all,” he said.
From police shootings of black men, to white supremacy rallies, to efforts to remove Confederate Civil War monuments, the nation has lurched from one racial controversy to another in recent years. The latest is blackface — in which someone darkens their face and adds bright red lipstick to create stereotypes and caricatures. The disclosures have angered and frustrated many black people, who say it is mocking and demeaning.
The practice took hold in New York City in the 1830s and became immensely popular among post-Civil War whites. In fact, the Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation in the South took their name from a character played by blackface performer Thomas Dartmouth Rice. He said his act “Jump, Jim Crow” (or “Jumping Jim Crow”) was inspired by a slave he saw.
On the first day of Black History Month a week ago, a photo emerged from Virginia Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook page that showed someone in blackface and another person in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe.
Northam at first admitted he was in the picture, then denied it a day later, but acknowledged he once blackened his face with shoe polish to imitate Michael Jackson for a dance contest in 1984. The disclosure roiled Virginia politics and prompted widespread calls for Northam to resign . He has so far refused.
Days later, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring — who is second in line to succeed Northam if he resigns — admitted to wearing blackface to look like a rapper during a party when he was a 19-year-old at the University of Virginia in 1980.
The Virginia disclosures drew intense attention but are hardly unusual. Just in recent months, Florida’s Republican secretary of state resigned in disgrace after a 2005 photo showed him wearing blackface and dressing as a “Hurricane Katrina victim.”
Clothing label Gucci said it was pulling a blackface-themed sweater from stores. A Snapchat video shows two Connecticut high school students wearing what seems like blackface. A similar incident was reported last month at the University of Oklahoma, when a man walked around campus in blackface. An old photo has popped up of “The View” co-host Joy Behar wearing makeup to darken her skin for a Halloween costume in the 1970s.
Carter said white people wearing blackface is a painful reminder of America’s history of racism, hate and exploitation.
“It’s just a huge form of disrespect. I’m kind of upset with a lot of people allowing it to be done. It’s acceptable in a lot of circles, even with our own people,” he said.
Education consultant and travel writer Fernanda Meier took to Twitter Wednesday to express her disgust.
“Dear white people,” she wrote, then retweeted: “Don’t wear blackface. Don’t think about wearing blackface. To be safe, don’t even say the word blackface, except to say ‘don’t wear blackface.’”
“My skin, hair, lips are a costume to non-black people,” Meier told The Associated Press from Bogota, Colombia, where she currently resides. “There is nothing flattering about using shoe polish or dark makeup to paint one’s skin like mine, when the very same thing is the source of my oppression.”
The Northam yearbook photo was even worse because the person in blackface was standing next to another person dressed in a white robe and mask like the Ku Klux Klan, said Korey Garibaldi, an assistant professor in American Studies at the University of Notre Dame.
“With that, you have a literal reference to racial terrorism,” Garibaldi said. “It’s never just blackface. There’s always something that makes this just that much more frightening — the Klan, exclusion from school, a job. It’s a whole kind of comprehensive white supremacy, not just a particular sort of image or remark. It’s a structure that needs to be challenged.”
Carter said the person in Klan garb in Northam’s yearbook photo angered him as a black man.
“When you see the Klan … these people took pictures next to bodies, hanging out of a tree,” he said in reference to lynchings. “The brutality that we face on a mental, physical and spiritual level is a lot. Hate is taught. You’re not born a racist. So, you have households teaching … kids. It’s inbred. How are you going to stop that?”
Taj Muhammad, a black man from Detroit, said the incidents show there is still racial hatred.
“I’m disappointed that more black people don’t know the history (of blackface) and know it’s very insulting,” Muhammad said. “I’m not disappointed in people of European descent. Historically, most Europeans never have been embracing of people of African descent.”
The number of hate crimes reported in the United States has risen in recent years to more than 4,100 motivated by race or ethnicity in 2017 compared to just under 3,500 the year before, according to Justice Department data .
Chicago-area pastor Eric Dorsey said it springs from systemic cultural bias.
“It’s kind of funny in a way where stuff like this comes out and the public has this outrage and this outcry of, ‘Oh my God! I can’t believe this happened,’” Dorsey said. “When if you really study the history of this nation, why are you surprised?”
He said the publicity around the incidents could be a good thing.
“I look at that as an opportunity to discuss issues that this country has swept under the rug,” he said. “We as a society have a chance to address them and heal from these wounds.”
Associated Press writer Alina Hartounian in Phoenix contributed to this report.
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