We discussed “call-out” and “cancel” culture in my communication ethics class last week. These days, when someone is found to have committed some wrongdoing (racism, homophobia, sexual assault, etc.), we take to social media to call them out publicly, or we summon the hostility of the masses and “cancel” them, or boycott them in some way. From Michael Jackson’s alleged child rape, to Elizabeth Warren’s claims about her Native American heritage, to Kevin Hart’s old homophobic comedy, to the accusations about Al Franken’s sexually inappropriate behavior, to the claims that Chick-fil-A is anti-gay. In nearly every case, there are behaviors or beliefs that need addressing. No doubt. And call-out/cancel culture leaves no room for doubt. Guilt is pronounced and sentence imposed. There isn’t space for explanations, context, or apologies. In some cases, there shouldn’t be. It’s a fascinating dilemma: if we don’t react strongly, we excuse abusive behavior; but if we abandon any attempt at a burden of proof or patience in judgment, we invite a whole other kind of abuse. I worry about where this takes us and what prospects it leaves us for future discourse and problem-solving. If our response to all untoward behavior is to go zero-to-Red Wedding faster than you can say, “scorched earth,” how do any of us survive to change tomorrow?
Lately, I’ve become fascinated by blackface. While the deeper structures of postmodern minstrelsy and cultural appropriation are complex and disturbing, I’m more fascinated with the literal version these days. With reports about the Virginia governor and attorney general, and the recent stories about Kay Ivey, Republican governor of Alabama, who reportedly wore black face paint during a skit at the Baptist Student Union in college, it turns out lots of people have done this. Billy Crystal, Gene Wilder, Jimmy Fallon, Robert Downey Jr., Sarah Silverman, to name a few, have used this form of racial caricature. It performs as a cultural weapon to disempower people of color and reaffirm white supremacy. It’s odd to me how some offenders have been angrily driven from public life, and others have never faced any pushback.
Like me, for example.
It was around January or February, 1977. I was in the seventh grade at Advance Junior High School, in Advance, Missouri (note: that’s “ADvance,” not be mistaken for the common, “adVANCE”), a little town that sits at the top of the Southeast Missouri bootheel. In the late ‘70s, the sign on State Highway 25 coming in to town read, “Population 903.” We were fairly new arrivals, having just moved from Topeka, Kansas a few months before. My dad was the new pastor of the First Baptist Church, and I had to literally fight for acceptance in this small town, where everyone had known everyone else their entire lives. My first fight was with Harold Miles, who went on years later to become president and CEO of the only bank in town, a role he inherited from his mother. Harold and I started fighting in the backyard of the Methodist church parsonage at lunchtime, and finished in the high school gym with adult supervision, boxing gloves, and a big audience, but that’s a story for another time.
I was a little guy back then (thankfully, so was Harold). As one of the smallest boys in my class, it made sense when some of my lilliputian peers and I were chosen to play a role in the schoolwide basketball pep rally. I don’t remember if we were rallying pep for a regular season game or ramping the energy up for a district playoff showdown. In any case, our upcoming opponent was Scott County Central High School. The stakes were high. Advance had claimed the Missouri state championship in ’75, and Scott County Central had won it in ’76. Advance’s colors were orange and black; Scott Central’s were black and orange. All of our players were white, from an all-white town. Their team was predominantly black, from a district that was much more racially diverse. The schools were only separated by 25 miles, but there was a world between us. It was a rivalry that seems too absurd for a TV movie, but it was true.
The narrative premise of the pep rally was the tallest varsity players on the home team would take the court and play a mock scrimmage against the “Scott Central Braves,” which were the tiniest seventh graders around. They would steal our passes, block our shots, and dunk over us, while the crowd would holler and make fun of the weak little team, bolstering their hometown heroes with just the right amount of piss and vinegar. They had sunk us in gigantic varsity jerseys, with tape plastered over “Hornets,” and “Braves” scrawled in the space. As we were preparing to take the court and be humiliated for the sake of tribal ritualism – and almost as an afterthought – someone grabbed us and started scrubbing something on our faces and arms. My memory is it almost felt like charcoal briquettes. This was no face paint. It was rough and barely showed up as dark. We weren’t really in blackface, we were in dirty face. But dirty enough to make the point.
I don’t remember being ashamed. I remember hamming it up for the audience and getting lots of attention from the student body. I wore their faux anger with pride, because we were all in on the joke. And after the show, the varsity players, who I saw as “men” towering over me, high fived me and treated me like I was on their team. It was a great feeling to be part of something that felt so right and so pure, even if part of that feeling came from an unsettling hatred and racial ridicule.
Nothing ever happened to me over this incident. No one was called to the principal’s office. No parents complained. I was never fired from a job over it, or lost any privileges in my life because of this act of blatant racism. No one was bothered. For years I didn’t try to understand it or even remember it, frankly. White privilege had done what it does best, it had rendered overt racism harmless, even normal.
It’s hard for me to tell this story today without tears. It breaks my heart that I willingly played a part in this. I know some high school students or faculty made me do it, and I didn’t really have agency in the situation, I still did it. And I’m sorry.
To the players on that 1977 Scott County Central High School basketball team, I am sorry. I’m sorry that when you were probably facing some really terrible obstacles in the community around you, I made your skin a joke. I’m sorry that I represented you as objects, rather than as human beings.
To the students and faculty of Advance Public Schools, I’m sorry. I’m sorry I played a part in a drama that worked to further entrench your community’s white supremacy.
Maybe I should have been called out or cancelled. Maybe I should still face consequences over this. Maybe we say that my age and the time in history excuse me from the sin. Maybe. I don’t know. All I know to do is ask for forgiveness and have conversations about it.
By the way, I don’t remember who won the game. I hope Scott Central kicked the shit out of us.