From Ralph Northam to Gucci: How Controversies Are Renewing Conversation Around Blackface in America

Playing Gucci Apologizes for Selling Sweater Appearing to Mimic Blackface

The controversy surrounding the governor of Virginia is renewing a conversation about blackface and how, incredibly, it continues to this day.

Gov. Ralph Northam initially said he was in an image from his 1984 medical school yearbook that showed a student in blackface and another in a white Ku Klux Klan robe. But the next day, he reversed his position.

"I believe then and now that I am not either of the people in that photo," he said, although he did acknowledge putting on blackface as part of a Michael Jackson costume using "just a little bit of shoe polish" to take part in a dance contest in 1984.

There have been calls for his resignation this week, yet his fate remains up in the air.

Ralph Northam's yearbook
Ralph Northam's 1984 yearbook page Obtained by The Washington Post via Getty Images

Meanwhile, the state's attorney general, Mark Herring, confessed Wednesday that he dressed in blackface to portray a rapper in 1980, when he was a University of Virginia student.

Herring, who didn't offer to resign, said in a statement he wore a wig and makeup "because of our ignorance and glib attitudes — and because we did not have an appreciation for the experiences and perspectives of others."

Other images online show the ugly practice is not a thing of the past. Incredibly, many people still do it today.

"I'm not shocked at all that you still have folks today wearing blackface because race is in the DNA of America," Roland Martin, host of the Roland Martin Unfiltered, told Inside Edition.

"People don't understand that it's not a joke to say, 'Oh, I'll put on some black makeup and it's all good and fun and games,'" he said. "No, it is a deep, profound, racist history in this country."

Former NBC anchor Megyn Kelly lost her job after defending people who wore blackface for Halloween.

"You do get in trouble if you are a white person who puts on blackface for Halloween, or a black person who puts on whiteface for Halloween," Kelly said on her show last October. "Back when I was a kid, that was OK just as long as you were dressing as a character."

NBC's weather anchor Al Roker appeared visibly angry as he spoke about Kelly's remarks the following day. 

“While she apologized to the staff, she owes a bigger apology to folks of color around the country because this is a history going back to the 1830s. Minstrel shows to demean and denigrate a race wasn’t right,” Roker said.

Kelly then opened her own show with an apology.

"I want to begin with two words: I'm sorry," she said. "The country feels so divided and I have no wish to add to that pain and offense. I believe this is a time for more understanding, more love, more sensitivity and honor. ... Thank you for listening and for helping me listen too."

By the end of the week, her show, "Megyn Kelly Today," had been canceled.

On Thursday, Gucci apologized for selling a sweater that appeared to mimic blackface, sending Twitter into overdrive.

"What the hell were they thinking?" one post asked.

Following the uproar, the fashion house announced they pulled the sweater.

"Gucci deeply apologizes for the offense caused," they said in a statement, adding they want to turn the incident "into a powerful learning moment for the Gucci team and beyond."

It comes just two months after Prada pulled key chains that looked like blackface dolls.

At the time, the company addressed the backlash in two tweets, saying: "#Prada Group never had the intention of offending anyone and we abhor all forms of racism and racist imagery. In this interest we will withdraw the characters in question from display and circulation."

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