Mistress of the Mix: What Skeletons are in Your Closet?

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Don’t you hate it when all the dark, creepy, stupid stuff from your past gets dragged out of the closet for everyone to see? I’ve got stuff. You’ve got stuff. We’ve all got stuff that we’d like to pretend never happened and keep hidden so badly that if Marie Kondo showed up and offered to help tidy it up, we’d slap a padlock on that closet door and usher her out of the house faster than you can say Fibber McGee.

But what about when that stuff that gets dragged out of the closet is a photo of you in blackface in your 1984 yearbook?

Not me. I’ve got plenty of stuff in my closet, but that is not one of them. I’m talking about one of my former Class of ’84 schoolmates.

He’s done pretty well for himself. He hosts his own TV show, and I’ve seen him make guest appearances on CNN quite a bit. He’s written a few books, travels around the country lecturing and making keynote speeches (he even made one at our 30th high school reunion), and is a self professed ‘misbehavior specialist.’

Oh, and he’s also a lawyer. Which is why I won’t be identifying him today while we talk about one of the things he was known best for in high school, which was wearing blackface with a bunch of his other buddies. Its on page 129 of my 1984 yearbook. He’s the one holding the dildo.

My high school classmates in blackface, dressed as Otis Day & The Knights. And yes. That’s a dildo in his hand.

This photo is from the KBOY Battle of the Bands. Air band contests were big in the early eighties. Six of my classmates dressed up to emulate Otis Day and the Knights, performing their hit song, “Shout” from the classic frat house comedy filmed in Oregon, “Animal House.” As a group, these guys performed this song in blackface many times over the course of a year or so. They performed it in the school gymnasium during a pep assembly. They performed it on stage (multiple times if memory serves) at public venues during the Battle of the Bands. I have a sneaking suspicion that I might have even taken this photo. I covered the event for the high school newspaper.

As far as I can remember, everyone thought Otis and the band were fabulous. Hilarious. I don’t recall anyone ever bringing up the idea that it might be racist or even insensitive. It simply didn’t even occur to anybody at the time that this was inappropriate. The guys in the photo above loved Otis Day and the Knights, and were doing their best to emulate and pay homage to them, just as the guys who ultimately won the Battle of the Bands that year (I think it was either The Blues Brothers or Loverboy) were doing their best to emulate their music idols by looking and dressing just like them.

But then again, we lived in what was, at the time, an ultra-white community in Southern Oregon. In fact it’s still pretty white, but seems much more diverse now, even though my daughter tells me otherwise. We didn’t have any African Americans in our graduating class. Not one. I believe there were two in the Junior class that year, but no Sophomores. There was one black teacher at the school, Mr. Johnson.

Mr. Johnson

I remember when Mr. Johnson told us in class that when he’d moved to Oregon in the 1960’s, he was followed from the moment his car entered into the city limits by people who weren’t happy about his presence in the community. It was hard for us students to imagine racism being accepted or even present in our community in the 1980’s. I think we thought we were enlightened souls who accepted people of all races as equals. People were people, everyone the same. I think we thought that since the civil rights movement had achieved passing laws, that it was as simple as that. Everyone is equal now. Maybe we thought we were colorblind.

And yet somehow we didn’t see that it might be inappropriate or hurtful to dress up in black face.

Michelle Alexander, Class of 1985

I remember Michelle Alexander, but not well. She was friends with my little sister, and was on the soccer team with her. She is one of those two students that were in the class behind mine. When I decided to write about our own blackface incident and what ignoramuses we were in high school, I thought of Michelle, and thought about what never occurred to me back in 1984. I wondered what kind of impact that moment, when six guys in blackface were all the rage on campus, might have had on her life.

I tried to put myself in her shoes (and of course I’ll never be able to really do that), and wondered if she felt uncomfortable watching the student body go wild for them. I wondered if she went home and talked to her parents about it, or if she was motivated to become a civil rights lawyer. I decided to look her up on the internet to see what Michelle Alexander is up to three decades after high school.

Michelle Alexander today, and the cover of her NY Times Bestseller, “The New Jim Crow.”

And…wow.

Turns out Michelle Alexander has done pretty well for herself too. She has indeed dedicated her life to civil rights advocacy. She is a highly acclaimed civil rights attorney, served as the director of the Racial Justice Project for the Northern California ACLU, serves as a professor of social justice, is an op-ed contributor for the New York Times and has written a bestselling book that pertains to exactly the issue we’re discussing today, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”

Alexander says that racial discrimination quickly and easily found a way to continue after civil rights legislation passed, pointing out how our prisons have become overwhelmingly filled with African Americans not because of bigotry or hatred towards people of color, but because of indifference (a lack of caring about race and racial groups).

I did a sudden flurry of research on Michelle Alexander, to see if she’s made any public comments about her high school days in Oregon, and whether our shared history of attending that pep assembly made any kind of impact on her life or had anything to do with her later decision to pursue a career in civil rights advocacy, but I haven’t found any mention that she’s made of blackface outside of this excerpt from “The New Jim Crow.”

This excerpt refers to black people performing in black face, not white people. But its easy to draw a parallel to the scene of a group of kids in blackface parading around to entertain a white audience. And I think it still pertains to the issue with white people. And the issue is this: we are an ignorant and amnesiac group who need to educate ourselves about racism and discrimination and fear and how these factors have led us to where we are today. We need to make an effort to learn the history that our school textbooks left out because our nation was embarrassed and wanted to sweep under the rug and diminish the crimes our ancestors committed against others to achieve wealth and control of this land. Not just to African Americans. But to Indigenous Americans, Mexicans and Chinese. The sad thing is, I know I’m leaving out a lot of people. White people pretty much built themselves up by stepping on the backs of every other race.  You can argue the point that other races have also stepped on the backs of other cultures and tribes and races to further themselves, but can we save that for another day? We’ve got a monstrous American History journey ahead of us, World History can wait its turn.

There’s one important detail that kept coming up over and over again while I was researching Michelle Alexander. Its about Virginia Governor Ralph Northam. There’s been a lot written about him recently, since the blackface photo from his yearbook fell out of his closet. Since Northam has declined to resign from office, there have been numerous posts on social media and articles like this one in The Atlantic asking Northam at least to get himself educated on the current state of civil rights in this country. The one book that keeps making it to the top of everyone’s suggested reading list for Northam? Michelle Alexander’s.

So back to the guy in blackface in the 1984 yearbook. The one with the dildo, not the governor.

I’ve thought about reaching out to him to ask what he’d say today if somebody brought it up (and believe me, some of my other high school classmate have brought it up recently on social media, but not to his…um, face).

Brett Kavanaugh’s rage face.

I know what I’d like him not to say. I’d like him not to pull a Northam and try to laugh it off, saying it was all in jest, no biggie. I’d like him not to Brett Kavanaugh the situation and get all ragey and contemptuous.

What I hope he’d say is what I hope anyone who has some shoe polish in their Pandora’s Box would say, or what anyone who regularly blacked out at college frat parties and was later accused of date rape would say. I would hope that he would simply own it. Recognize that every one of us is guilty of doing dumb, thoughtless stuff in our past. Apologize for it, and then just make a sincere commitment to move forward with new understanding and sensitivity, as well as make a real effort to get educated on the matter.

I came across my former classmate’s website the other day. It advertises him as a brilliant, inspirational speaker because he “doesn’t just know about transformation because he’s studied it; he’s lived it. His authenticity and transparency is unparalleled.” That said, I’m really looking forward to hearing how he handles this one. In the right way. Maybe at our next high school reunion.

I’m breaking format a little bit here, and instead of a music playlist with today’s column, I’m offering up a suggested reading list. It’s a short one, so please feel free to add your suggested reading in the comments below.

1. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
2. Beyond Blackface: African Americans and the Creation of American Popular Culture by W. Fitzhugh Brundage
3. Appropriating Blackness: Performance and the Politics of Authenticity by E. Patrick Johnson

Valerie Ing
Valerie Ing has been the Northern California Program Coordinator for Jefferson Public Radio in Redding for 14 years and can often be found serving as Mistress of Ceremonies at the Cascade Theatre. For her, ultimate satisfaction comes from a perfect segue. She and her husband are parents to a couple of college students and a pair of West Highland Terriers, and Valerie can’t imagine life without them or music. The Mistress of the Mix wakes up every day with a song in her head, she sings in the shower and at the top of her lungs in the car.
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39 Responses

  1. Avatar Bruce Vojtecky says:

    I would say just about any James Michener book would be good reading for skeleton history of the nation.
    Also having just watched Hells on Wheels on Netflix showed a lot of hatred toward all kinds of groups.

  2. Avatar Tim says:

    I call BS on the mock outrage (as do a majority of blacks in Virginia, I might add). Should we apologize for walking like an Egyptian? Should we have a heart to heart with Alexa over our long nights spent performing the robot? Should we scrub Shakespeare from our history for using men dressed in drag to generate howls of laughter from groundlings? Should Dave Chappelle be booed offstage everytime he assumes a white affect for a laugh? Or should we accept that it is as close to a universal truth that humanity has long found comedy in seeing the unexpected – especially in seeing the opposite of our expectations?

    Oh sure, I know this is the part where we talk about power differentials. We compare grievances and allow only those from a lower caste to imitate identity groupings deemed to be of higher status. This too is BS. There is a world of difference between mocking humiliation and admiration – surely we are capable of looking beyond a mere snapshot to see what motivations were involved. Anyone humiliating another group is just an asshole, no matter what year the photo. A white boy genuinely wanting to be just like a black man is something else entirely.

    And while we’re at it, can we stop with all this nonsense about cultural appropriation? Should only Germans be allowed to decorate their homes with Christmas trees? Should only Arabs be allowed to practice medicine? Only Chinese use gunpowder? Should we demand the immediate resignation of any non Japanese manager who ever uttered the word kaizen? Or should we recognize that America became the greatest country in the world precisely because it was a melting pot of ideas, cultures, and customs?

    • Steven Towers Steven Towers says:

      Tim — I agree broadly with most of this—I would go further and say that liberals are marching on their own peckers with ridiculously over-the-top political correctness.

      But white boys wanting to be like black men is the early Rolling Stones and a million white boys trying to play guitar like Jimi Hendrix. It’s every white kid in America wanting to play hoops like Steph. It’s me wishing I possessed a small fraction of Denzel Washington’s innate coolness and integrity.

      It’s NOT white dudes in blackface. That has always been, at least in part, a form of mockery.

  3. Adrienne Jacoby Adrienne Jacoby says:

    Well . . . . there’s some thought provoking social gymnastics for a Monday morning!! Whew!!! I’ll probably go back and chew on not only Val’s column but also the comments that are sure to come, many times this coming week. Thanks, Val for a Monday morning wake up call! . . .. and you too Tim!

  4. Annelise Pierce Annelise Pierce says:

    Well done.

  5. Avatar Candace C says:

    Tim, “I call BS on the mock outrage (as do a majority of blacks in Virginia, I might add)” I fail to see how this helps your argument. Black people aren’t a monolith. Just because someone doesn’t have racist intentions doesnt mean their actions don’t have a racist impact.

    • Avatar Tim says:

      I just find it telling that the majority of outrage over a 40 year old blackface photo comes from WASPs, rather than the presumed victims. I assert that the most rampant form of racism today is the patronizing manner in which fair skinned members of the PC-police treat people of color as inferior beings needing the special protection of white saviors.

      • Steven Towers Steven Towers says:

        I think it’s interesting that there were two movies nominated for Best Picture that were about self-empowered black people, one of them written and directed by an African-American. But the Best Picture Oscar went to the flick about the White Savior. That’s still our nation’s comfort zone.

  6. Avatar Candace C says:

    Mistress of the Mix, Well done. The older I get and the more I look back on my childhood in Redding I realize how completely ignorant I was regarding racism. It’s pretty cringe worthy. I’m trying to listen, learn, and do better. I realize I have built-in racial biases (even having been raised by a very progressive mother) simply because of the fact that I grew up in a predominantly white city. That said, I can choose to realize those biases and try to correct them. The “whitesplaining” thing is a hard habit to break and I think outrage on the side of POC is anything but “mock”.

  7. Avatar Katie Connaughton says:

    The Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, by David Grann
    https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/07/books/now-read-this-discussion-questions.html

  8. Tom O'Mara Tom O'Mara says:

    I would add Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.

  9. Avatar Candace C says:

    Tim,
    I actually agree with a few of your points. As far as your assertion regarding WASP’s? I get your point but my guess
    is that POC are simply sick to death of explaining why black face is wrong to white folk like you and L Also, a white highschool kid in Oregon genuinely wanting to be a black man? C’mon, surely you would concede that that in itself is a symptom of ignorance regarding racism . His intent may have been to emulate a black musician he admired but that doesn’t exonerate him from the fact that it’s racist, intentional or not. The fact that he (and others) didn’t know it was wrong doesn’t mean he/they can’t recognize that now; WASP’s or not.

    • Avatar Tim says:

      Candace says: “Also, a white highschool kid in Oregon genuinely wanting to be a black man? C’mon, surely you would concede that that in itself is a symptom of ignorance regarding racism”

      Steve says: “It’s NOT white dudes in blackface. That has always been, at least in part, a form of mockery.”

      What you call ignorance, I see more as innocence. A white kid in Oregon wants to be like a superstar who happens to be black. He imitates what he sees not as a form of mockery but from a place of love and respect. Is it really so wrong that he doesn’t see being black as a bad thing?

      If an 8 year-old white boy wants to dress up as his idol, Colin Kaepernick, for Halloween, are we really supposed to sit him down and say “sorry kid, you cannot mimick your idol’s hairstyle because it is deeply associated with Black empowerment.” Aren’t we then teaching him that blacks are different – that we must treat them differently from those who look more like us?

      If an Abe Lincoln reenactor uses makeup to exaggerate his cheekbones and elongate his face – is he mocking people with Marfan’s? Or is he just mimicking a specific man?

      • Avatar Candace C says:

        Tim, I guess I’m thinking a kid in highshool made up in black face while holding a dildo might not be that innocent. As far as him not seeing black as a “bad” thing he’d be right. Being black in itself isn’t a “bad” thing but black face was born out of mockery. As far as the kid and Halloween and Kaepernick goes I think that perhaps a conversation about the fact that yes, black people are treated differently. Kaepernick being a great example of that might be the conversation to be had.

      • Steven Towers Steven Towers says:

        Tim — I will grant you that there are indistinct lines all over the place regarding race. An 8-yr-old white kid dressing up as Kaep, including the ‘fro, is just trying to look like his hero. No need to sit him down and give him a cultural appropriation lecture, in my opinion.

        High school kids who want to wear blackface? Let’s have a talk. If you think those kids from the Beaver State genuinely want to be black men, I think maybe you’re the naive innocent. It’s far more likely that they think dressing up as Morris Day and the Knights (superstars?) is a glorious goof. They’re in need of some history and context—the roots of the practice matter.

        It’s not that hard to find examples of Vaudville blackface minstrelsy on YouTube featuring such caricatures as Mammy, Uncle Tom, Buck, and Jezebel. It’s an awful tradition, and it’s unmistakably mockery most foul.

        • Avatar Tim says:

          I have no problem condemning mean spirited minstrelry, but I see blackface as corollary rather than causal and more worthy of a “trigger warning” than outright censorship.

          In Tropic Thunder is Robert Downey Jr’s mocking Blacks by being in blackface? Or is the character hyperbolically mocking method acting and the film industry? Is it shock value for shock’s sake or some greater commentary?

          • Steven Towers Steven Towers says:

            I guess I make a distinction between “blackface,” where the intent is to appear as a white person pretending to be black—generally to mockingly depict black stereotypes—and disappearing into a role where the opposite is intended.

            Robert Downey Jr.’s character was indeed mocking character acting, not of black people. His was arguably the coolest character in the movie. And even then, some people thought that character was problematic. (Not me.). The audacious political incorrectness of it was the very joke—nearly every character in the movie was a clueless Hollywood idiot of one type or another.

            Gene Wilder attempting a ghetto-black disguise in “Silver Streak” (coached by Richard Prior) was absolutely making fun of how uptight white dudes can be. It was a white guy in blackface making fun of white guys.

  10. Thank you, Val, for this thought-provoking piece. You’re the master – mistress – of being the party-starter for difficult conversations. And I like the break in format today for books, not songs.

    I can echo some of Candace’s observations about growing up in mainly-white Redding (but I’m a bit older than she is). I also remember childhood terminology that I now wince over, like calling flip flops “Jap flaps” and it didn’t dawn upon me until I was much older that that term was offensive.

    It’s never too late to learn and grow and admit mistakes and vow to do better.

    I appreciate you, Val, for going where some writers fear to go.

    And I love that at ANC we can engage in potentially uncomfortable dialogue.

    • Avatar Vicki Gallagher says:

      Ugh, your comment reminds me of something I said last summer. I embarrassed myself by referring to a tree as a Digger Pine. Thank goodness my friend gently corrected me. I had no idea, the term “digger” is an ethnic slur against Native Americans. I was mortified! The correct term is Foothill Pine.

      • Dr. Patty Dr. Patty says:

        I’m sitting here reading this with a man who is Cherokee Native American. He said he has never heard that racial slur and he has heard plenty. He calls those trees digger pines because when he moved here from back East, that’s what everyone told him they are called. He wants to know if he should start being offended now. He’s smiling his beautiful smile.

  11. Avatar Candace C says:

    Steve, I agree.

  12. Avatar JoAnn Raines says:

    Along with Michelle Alexander’s book, which was already on my reading list, I also have:

    White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism

    Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race

    So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo

  13. Avatar Denise Ohm says:

    Great piece! Especially appreciated is the notion that why don’t these guys who are on the spot just own it? It would have been so refreshing to have heard Trump just plain acknowledge the problem with the grab em statement. No frills, just say “I get it now” or “work in progress”.

    It took me, still takes me a long time to self examine my own predjudice. It’s been ingrained a long time and only the past decade can I acknowledge that I can write a new story.

    A powerful phrase from Michelle Alexander is “do we understand him as an unfortunate expression of the times?”

    And that’s it, using the Mistress of the Mix high school photo, I’m trusting the goal of those antics was to amuse classmates and probably horrify a few adults along the way.

    Calm down every one and tell your truth as you understand it to be.

  14. Joanne Snyder Joanne Snyder says:

    I would add Charles C, Mann’s book 1491 to the reading list. Great article Val. I was on the year book staff at my geographically isolated high school, and the teacher in charge would never have allowed a black face photo to be published. Or a photo that included a dildo! That could have been because he taught during a time when riots, Civil Rights marches and Martin Luther King were in the national news everyday.

  15. Avatar Candace C says:

    Tim, …and then that kid and his guardians can choose to let him dress up for Halloween however they see fit. There’s no law against that other than in the court of public opinion.

  16. Avatar Candace C says:

    Tim, as far as the Marfan analogy goes, while I understand the point you’re trying to make , unless I’m wrong, Marfan is fairly rare and the those who suffer from it are not a large, historically oppressed group of people.

    • Avatar Tim says:

      You got me with the synthetic phallus (now there’s a phrase I never imagined saying), but I recall lots of decent white folk in that time period dressing up as Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, etc at costume parties or for Halloween. A bit more recently, I remember a white couple being the hit of a party as crazy Tom Cruise & Oprah Winfrey. If I detected any hint of malice, it was towards only the unhinged rich white male movie star…

      The Marfan analogy might have been stretched, but how about the use of a Jewish nose? Can you do Barbara Streisand justice without it? (FWIW Streisand lightheartedly criticized the lack of the iconic nose in Jennifer Aniston’s portrayal of a young Streisand).

      • Steven Towers Steven Towers says:

        I’m old enough to remember the hip-hop artist Shock-G’s alter-ego “Humpty Hump,” complete with Groucho Marx nose and glasses, and an affected nasally voice. Even pre-PC era, I thought it was a little sketchy, given the often frictional relationship between America’s black and Jewish populations.

        A confession: Long ago, my wife and I went to a Halloween party dressed as a Catholic priest and Catholic schoolgirl. We meant to be provocative, but in retrospect I’d kind of like a do-over.

  17. R.V. Scheide R.V. Scheide says:

    White people performing in black face is a uniquely American tradition that began roughly in the early 1800s. It was intended as mockery of black behavior from the very beginning, while incorporating black folk music styles that were popular with white audiences. Black face faded after the Civil War, but was raised from the dead by Jewish vaudevillians in the early 1900s, who were also mocking black behavior, again while incorporating black music, this time early jazz, into the act. I went to a tiny podunk high school and was well aware that black face performances were offensive to many black people by the time I graduated in 1978. That your classmates were unaware of this seems highly improbable.

    As far as the acceptance of the Virginia governor’s black face yearbook photo by the state’s black population, it’s because they know how politics works. They haven’t forgiven the governor, they’re putting his feet to the fire to get the legislation they want, and surely will never get from a Republican.

  18. Joanne Snyder Joanne Snyder says:

    Thought inspiring article Val. That a university’s year book published a photo of a hooded klan man and a man in black face, or the Bret Kavenaugh’s year book published what it did about him and other young men is beyond me. It strikes me that the adult culture around these men was not what you would expect from quality schools.

  19. Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

    I’ll lay myself wide open to criticism with this comment. Would we be having this discussion if a black person performed in white face? Sling your arrows.

    • Steven Towers Steven Towers says:

      The Wayans Brothers made a movie called “White Chicks” in 2004 in which two disgrace black FBI agents have to pose as a pair of white socialite girls. The flick wasn’t criticized for the “whiteface” aspect—it was just knocked for being a crappy film.

      Skip forward to 2018, and Today Show co-host Megyn Kelly gets into hot water for defending blackface. Following Kelly’s split from the show, her former NBC colleagues offered their opinions on wearing blackface. Longtime anchor Al Roker fielded a question on Twitter hoping to trap him in a hypocritical stance. When asked if he was OK with the use of whiteface in “White Chicks” after he denounced any form of blackface, Roker said:

      “Dude, didn’t see that movie. But let me jump in the DeLorean with Doc Brown and travel back to 2004 to denounce it.”

      Times change.

  20. Avatar Vicki Gallagher says:

    I always love your articles Valerie, but this one hit it out of the ballpark. Thank you!

  21. Avatar Ann Webber says:

    I adore you and your insightful thoughts on this topic. The changes we have seen in our lives are evidence that we are learning. It’s a long and sometimes painful process, but we are moving in the direction of acceptance of all of our shortcomings by owning them and achieving change.