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Blackface and forgiveness

“All men fall short of the glory of God.”

The room fell silent as Ambassador Andrew Young spoke these words on our campus last week.

Sitting in a press conference with journalists from all over the state, I anticipated this social justice warrior to speak out against blackface when a question arose about the Virginia state governor. Earlier this year, a picture of Gov. Ralph Northam wearing blackface entered the political scene, and the uproar continues today.

Politicians and concerned American citizens are calling on the governor to respectfully resign from his position with the assumption he cannot adequately represent his constituency with such a flawed past. Many are wondering how a once racially insensitive and inconsiderate man can represent the minority population in his state.

With House Speaker Nancy Pelosi calling for his resignation, as well as the Virginia State black caucus releasing a statement essentially de-endorsing the governor, I fully expected Young—a close friend of Martin Luther King Jr.—to comply with this narrative. Instead, he humbly stated Scripture: “All men fall short of the glory of God.”

After hearing these words, I did not quite know how to feel about the subject matter. Let me be clear. I am not giving this governor an excuse for his actions, far from it. Blackface, no matter the context, is never acceptable. Never. I do not care what year the photo was taken, or the fact the person who painted their face was a teenager or “it was normal back then.” The racial implications of this abhorrent act of pure and unquestionable racism greatly outweigh the reputation of the person who made the bitter mistake to paint their face.

Still, I feel as though forgiveness must play a role in our politics as this country attempts to move toward a more progressive and racially inclusive society. People have the capacity to change. As a black person, I know the weight of this particular racial act is nearly unforgivable. While difficult, we must learn how to forgive, because every person has made a mistake. I know I am not ready to throw the first stone.

Even though we must have a heart to forgive, this does not give the governor or anyone else an easy out. Racism is still alive, and the issue of wearing blackface continues to persist among college-age students. Just 30 minutes away, the University of Oklahoma recently made national news as students recorded a video which included blackface.

To see students who are my age and grew up in the same culture as I did continue to paint their face is disgusting, and they have no excuse. No one has an excuse. At the end of the day, wrong is wrong. It does not matter that the picture of Gov. Northam was taken years ago, or the students at OU were joking. The deep history of blackface as a subordinating entertainment mechanism for racist people will never disappear.

So, I ask young people to never consider blackface as a means of entertainment. I ask black people to forgive those who genuinely ask for our forgiveness. I urge anyone who has ever worn blackface, willingly consumed media with blackface or failed to recognize the problem with blackface to sincerely apologize and be better in the future.

Most of all, I ask everyone to tirelessly defend victims of racism—your character depends on it.

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